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

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

What are the stages of atopic dermatitis?

Atopic dermatitis affects each child differently, both in terms of onset and severity of symptoms. In infants, atopic dermatitis typically begins around 6 to 12 weeks of age. It may first appear around the cheeks and chin as a patchy facial rash, which can progress to red, scaling, oozing skin. The skin may become infected. Once the infant becomes more mobile and begins crawling, exposed areas such as the knees and elbows may also be affected. An infant with atopic dermatitis may be restless and irritable because of the itching and discomfort. Many infants improve by 18 months of age, although they remain at greater than normal risk for dry skin or hand eczema later in life.

In childhood, the rash tends to occur behind the knees and inside the elbows, on the sides of the neck, and on the wrists, ankles, and hands. Often, the rash begins with papules that become hard and scaly when scratched. The skin around the lips may be inflamed, and constant licking of the area may lead to small, painful cracks. Severe cases of atopic dermatitis may affect growth, and the child may be shorter than average. In those with more heavily pigmented skin, especially the face, areas of lighter skin color appear. This condition is called pityriasis alba. It is usually self-limited and the color will eventually normalize.

The disease may go into remission (disease-free period) for months or even years. In most children, the disease disappears after puberty. Although a number of people who developed atopic dermatitis as children also experience symptoms as adults, it is less common for the disease to show up first in adulthood. The pattern in adults is similar to that seen in children; that is, the disease may be widespread or limited. In some adults, only the hands or feet may be affected and become dry, itchy, red, and cracked. Sleep patterns and work performance may be affected, and long-term use of medications to treat the condition may cause complications. Adults with atopic dermatitis also have a predisposition toward irritant contact dermatitis, especially if they are in occupations involving frequent hand wetting, hand washing, or exposure to chemicals. Some people develop a rash around their nipples. These localized symptoms are difficult to treat, and people often do not tell their doctor because of modesty or embarrassment. Adults may also develop cataracts that are difficult to detect because they cause no symptoms. Therefore, the doctor may recommend regular eye exams.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 10/9/2015
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