Atopic Dermatitis

  • Medical Author:
    Gary W. Cole, MD, FAAD

    Dr. Cole is board certified in dermatology. He obtained his BA degree in bacteriology, his MA degree in microbiology, and his MD at the University of California, Los Angeles. He trained in dermatology at the University of Oregon, where he completed his residency.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

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Eczema (Atopic Dermatitis) Pictures Slideshow: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

How common is atopic dermatitis?

Atopic dermatitis is very common worldwide and increasing in prevalence. It affects males and females equally and accounts for 10%-20% of all referrals to dermatologists (doctors who specialize in the care and treatment of skin diseases). Atopic dermatitis occurs most often in infants and children, and its onset decreases substantially with age. Scientists estimate that 65% of patients develop symptoms in the first year of life, and 90% develop symptoms before the age of 5. Onset after age 30 is less common and often occurs after exposure of the skin to harsh conditions. People who live in urban areas and in climates with low humidity seem to be at an increased risk for developing atopic dermatitis.

About 10% of all infants and young children experience symptoms of the disease. Roughly 60% of these infants continue to have one or more symptoms of atopic dermatitis even after they reach adulthood. This means that more than 15 million people in the United States have symptoms of the disease.

What causes atopic dermatitis?

The cause of atopic dermatitis is not known, but the disease seems to result from a combination of genetic (hereditary) and environmental factors. There seems to be a basic hypersensitivity and an increased tendency toward itching. Evidence suggests that the disease is associated with other so-called atopic disorders such as hay fever (seasonal allergies) and asthma, which many people with atopic dermatitis also have. In addition, many children who outgrow the symptoms of atopic dermatitis go on to develop hay fever or asthma. Although one disorder does not necessarily cause another, they may be related, thereby giving researchers clues to understanding atopic dermatitis. It is important to understand that food sensitivities do not seem to be a major inciting factor for most cases of atopic dermatitis. This is an area of active research. Patients with atopic dermatitis seem to have mild immune system weakness. They are predisposed to develop fungal foot disease and cutaneous staphylococcal infections, and they can disseminate herpes simplex lip infections (eczema herpeticum) and smallpox vaccination (eczema vaccinatum) to large areas of skin.

While emotional factors and stress may sometimes exacerbate the condition, they do not seem to be a primary or underlying cause for the disorder.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 10/9/2015
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