Atopic Eczema FAQs
Reviewed by Gary W. Cole, MD, FAAD
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Q:Eczema (also atopic eczema or atopic dermatitis) is a general term for types of skin inflammation. True or False?
A:True. The word eczema comes from the Greek word for bubbling. It is a weeping, oozing itchy eruption that has many causes, the most common being atopic eczema. Other causes include allergic contact dermatitis, irritant contact dermatitis, seborrheic dermatitis, stasis dermatitis, pompholyx (dyshidrotic eczema), and xerosis. In addition, there are a number of other diseases that can present with an eczematous appearance, including scabies and fungal infections.
Q:Atopic eczema has no known cause. True or False?
A:False. Atopic eczema is now thought to be related to defective production of skin protein called filaggrin in many cases.
Q:Is atopic eczema contagious?
A:No. Although a predisposition to atopic eczema can be inherited, it is not transmissible from person to person.
Q:What are some triggers for atopic eczema?
A:Sweat, soap and clothing. Environmental factors play an important role in triggering atopic eczema. It is not unusual for patients with atopic eczema to note that sweating during exercise, using harsh detergents, or wearing wool clothing can produce itching and trigger flares of atopic eczema.
Q:What are the first symptoms of atopic eczema?
A:Swelling, oozing, and crusting are all signs of atopic eczema. In a practical sense, swelling, oozing, crusting, and itching probably all occur simultaneously.
Q:Pruritus is the medical term for what?
A:Itching. Pruritus (proo-RYE-tuss) is the medical term for itching. Itching sensations are carried by peripheral sensory nerves called C fibers. They are the same fibers that mediate the pain sensations. Anyone who has itched knows that is almost impossible to ignore the sensation. Scratching the itch probably changes the sensation to something akin to pain, which seems easier to tolerate.
Q:In children and adults, atopic eczema usually occurs on the scalp first. True or False?
A:False. Atopic eczema usually begins in infancy or early childhood. Since many children slobber at this age, the saliva will evaporate and dry out the skin of the face, producing dermatitis on the cheeks. Children in diapers also often have eczema on their elbows and knees. Eczema typically does not affect the diaper area. In adults, the pattern is somewhat different; eczema most commonly affects the skin folds opposite the elbows and knees. In addition, the neck, wrists, and ankles often have lesions.
Q:Atopic eczema is best controlled by good skin care. True or False?
A:True. Good skin care means that the skin should be kept moist. This is particularly important in children or adults who have atopic eczema. After a shower or bath, before towel drying, a thin layer of an emollient (a greasy substance which water cannot penetrate) should be applied to the wet skin to inhibit the evaporation of skin moisture.
Q:Prescription treatments are available for severe atopic eczema. True or False?
A:True. If over-the-counter treatments fail to control atopic eczema, then it is time to see a physician. It may be necessary to prescribe topical steroids to control acute flares of dermatitis. Occasionally, other anti-inflammatory oral medications may be required for short-term control, and even ultraviolet light exposures can help manage serious persistent cases.
Q:How is atopic eczema diagnosed?
A:Currently, there is no single test to diagnose atopic dermatitis (eczema). Most of the time, a competent physician is able to diagnosis atopic eczema with great accuracy by taking a medical history and then examining the patient's skin. Rarely, it may be necessary to draw blood and even take a sample of the patient's skin for microscopic examination to rule out other causes of weeping, oozing dermatitis.
Q:Atopic eczema can mimic other skin diseases and infections. True or False?
A:True. Atopic eczema must be distinguished from a wide variety of other causes of weeping, oozing dermatitis. Many of these superficially similar conditions require very different forms of treatment.
Q:What types of things can irritate skin in people with atopic eczema?
A:Since the environment plays a very important role in skin hydration, the best answer to this question would be dry sand.
Q:The skin itches. Scratching the itch is temporarily satisfying but actually leads to more itching. This describes what?
A:The itch-scratch cycle.
Q:People who have been diagnosed with atopic eczema should avoid what kind of vaccine?
A:Patients with poorly controlled atopic eczema should avoid being vaccinated for smallpox.
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