logo

DermNet NZ

Ad

Facts about the skin from DermNet New Zealand Trust. Topic index: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z


Atopic eczema

What is atopic eczema?

Atopic eczema is a chronic, itchy skin condition that is very common in children but may occur at any age. It is also known as eczema, atopic dermatitis and neurodermatitis. It is the most common form of dermatitis.

Atopic eczema usually occurs in people who have an 'atopic tendency'. This means they may develop any or all of three closely linked conditions; atopic eczema, asthma and hay fever (allergic rhinitis). Often these conditions run within families with a parent, child or sibling also affected. A family history of asthma, eczema or hay fever is particularly useful in diagnosing atopic eczema in infants.

Atopic eczema is not contagious! It arises because of a complex interaction of genetic and environmental factors. These include defects in skin barrier function making the skin more susceptible to irritation by soap and other contact irritants, the weather, temperature and non-specific triggers: see Causes of atopic eczema.

What does atopic eczema look like?

There is quite a variation in the appearance of atopic eczema between individuals. From time to time, most people have acute flares with inflamed, red, sometimes blistered and weepy patches. In between flares, the skin may appear normal or suffer from chronic eczema with dry, thickened and itchy areas.

The presence of infection or an additional skin condition, the creams applied, the age of the person, their ethnic origin and other factors can alter the way eczema looks and feels.

There are however some general patterns to where the eczema is found on the body according to the age of the affected person.

Atopic eczema Atopic eczema Atopic eczema
Infantile atopic eczema

Infants

Atopic eczema Atopic eczema Atopic eczema
Atopic eczema in pre-schoolers

Toddlers and pre-schoolers

Atopic eczema Atopic eczema Atopic eczema
Atopic eczema in school-age children

School-age children

Atopic eczema Atopic eczema Infected dermatitis
Atopic eczema in adults

Adults

Atopic eczema Atopic eczema Atopic eczema
Persistent atopic eczema

More images of atopic eczema and flexural dermatitis.

Does atopic eczema persist forever?

Atopic eczema affects 15-20% of children but only 1-2% of adults. It is impossible to predict whether eczema will improve by itself or not in an individual.

It is unusual for an infant to be affected with atopic eczema before the age of four months but they may suffer from infantile seborrhoeic dermatitis or other rashes prior to this. The onset of atopic eczema is usually before two years of age although it can manifest itself in older people for the first time.

Atopic eczema is often worst between the ages of two and four but it generally improves after this and may clear altogether by the teens.

Certain occupations such as farming, hairdressing, domestic and industrial cleaning, domestic duties and care giving expose the skin to various irritants and sometimes allergens. This aggravates atopic eczema. It is wise to bear this in mind when considering career options - it is usually easier to choose a more suitable occupation from the outset than to change it later.

What is the treatment for atopic dermatitis?

Treatment of atopic eczema may be required for many months and possibly years.

It nearly always requires:

In some cases, management may also include one of more of the following:

Longstanding and severe eczema may be treated with an immunosupressive agent.

Related information

References:

On DermNet NZ:

Other websites:

Books about skin diseases:

See the DermNet NZ bookstore

Author: Dr Amy Stanway, Department of Dermatology, Health Waikato, February 2004

DermNet NZ does not provide an on-line consultation service.
If you have any concerns with your skin or its treatment, see a dermatologist for advice.