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    Overview of Atopic Dermatitis
    What is atopic dermatitis?

    Atopic dermatitis (AD) is a chronic skin condition characterized by patches of dry, inflamed, and itchy skin. The exact cause of AD isn’t well understood. One factor may be an overproduction of cells in your immune system that promote inflammation.

    AD often starts in childhood and tends to flare up periodically. During flare-ups, people with AD often scratch the affected area. This scratching can lead to more skin inflammation and make symptoms worse.

    Currently, there’s no cure for AD. Treatment involves avoiding triggers, making lifestyle changes, and taking medications to ease symptoms.

    Keep reading to learn more about AD, including what it looks like, causes, treatments, and potential complications.

    Atopic dermatitis vs. eczema

    AD is often called eczema, a word that refers to a broader group of skin conditions. “Dermatitis” relates to conditions of the skin and “atopic” refers to diseases caused by allergic reactions.

    What are the types of atopic dermatitis?

    All types of eczema cause itchiness and redness, but AD is the most severe and chronic. Other types of eczema include:

    Hand eczema. Hand eczema affects only your hands and is often caused by frequent contact with irritating chemicals.

    Contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis is skin irritation caused by contact with certain irritants.

    Dyshidrotic eczema. Dyshidrotic eczema is a type of eczema that develops only on your fingers, your palms, and the soles of your feet.

    Neurodermatitis (lichenification). Neurodermatitis is characterized by thickened patches of skin due to repeated rubbing or scratching.

    Nummular eczema. Nummular eczema is a chronic condition that causes spots about the size of coins that are often itchy.

    Stasis dermatitis. Stasis dermatitis is a type of skin irritation that develops in people with poor circulation, typically in the lower legs.

    Doctors and researchers are working to better understand how eczema works and why it affects so many people. There’s currently no known cure for this common condition.

    What are the symptoms of atopic dermatitis?

    The primary symptom of AD is dry, itchy skin that often turns into a red rash during flare-ups.

    Many different physical and internal factors can trigger an eczema flare-up. The resulting inflammation causes increased blood flow and the urge to itch.

    Eczema flares are part of the agonizing itch-scratch cycle. It’s hard to fight the physical and psychological elements that drive this cycle. Scratching feels good at the time but can lead to more inflammation and even skin infections.

    AD has different symptoms depending on a person’s age.

    Symptoms in infants

    Symptoms in infants can include:

    dry, itchy, scaly skin

    a rash on the scalp or cheeks

    a rash that may bubble and weep clear fluid

    Infants with these symptoms may have trouble sleeping due to itchy skin. Infants with AD may also develop skin infections from scratching.

    Symptoms in children

    Symptoms in children can include:

    a rash in the creases of the elbows, knees, or both

    scaly patches of skin at the site of the rash

    lightened or darkened skin spots

    thick, leathery skin

    extremely dry and scaly skin

    rashes on the neck and face, especially around the eyes

    Symptoms in adults

    Adults with AD tend to have skin that’s extremely dry and scaly. In a 2021 survey published by the Eczema Society of Canada, 71 percent of people with moderate or severe AD rated their itch as a 7 out of 10 or higher.

    According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, adults tend to get AD in different places than children. Commonly affected areas include:

    backs of the knees

    crooks of the elbows

    back of the neck


    Adults are also more likely to have symptoms around their eyes.

    Adults who had AD as children may have discolored or leathery patches of skin that are easily irritated. Some people who had AD in childhood may not have symptoms for many years until they return later in adulthood.