The term ‘eczema’ refers to several different conditions that cause the skin to be dry, irritated, and itchy.  The one we mostly think about is atopic eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis.  It affects almost 18 million Americans and causes red, itchy rashes to form on the cheeks, arms, and legs.  It is common in children with other allergic conditions such as asthma and hay fever (allergic rhinitis).  It is also seen commonly in children who have other family members with allergy related problems.

This disease typically begins in childhood, as early as the first year of life.  Even though it’s the most common type of eczema, it tends to be the most sever and long-lasting.   It is a real roller coaster ride with periods of improvement broken up flares.  Many patients get better as they grow older, but some continue to experience atopic dermatitis well into adulthood.

Why Does My Child Itch?

We don’t know for sure why some people get atopic dermatitis, but we do know that it is probably a combination of genetics and environmental factors.  These environmental factors (pollen, dust mites, animal dander) can trigger the immune system and cause the skin to become inflamed.  This is a condition that itches before a rash forms, and the itching can be very intense causing irritability, poor feeding and loss of sleep.  Atopic dermatitis is not contagious – you and your child cannot “catch” it from another person, or give it to someone else.

How is Atopic Dermatitis different from Eczema?

Unlike other forms of eczema, atopic dermatitis does not typically go away in days or weeks.  It is a chronic condition that lasts for years with periods of improvement and worsening.  It is extremely itchy and your child’s skin can become further inflamed and damaged from scratching and rubbing.  It usually affects the cheeks, elbows, wrists, knees, ankles, and neck.

Symptoms of Atopic Dermatitis include:

  • Dry, scaly skin
  • Redness
  • Itching
  • Cracks and fissures behind the ears
  • Rashes on both sides of the body (elbows, knees, wrists, ankles)
  • Open, crusted or “weepy” sores (during flares)

What makes Atopic Dermatitis flare?

A lot of different things can trigger a flare of atopic dermatitis.  Some of the more common triggers include:

  • Dry Skin – becomes brittle, scaly, rough, and tight
  • Irritants – everyday products (hand and dish soap, laundry detergent, shampoo, bubble bath, body wash, cleaners, disinfectants – cause the skin to burn and itch, or become dry and red
  • Stress – emotional stress causes AD to flare
  • Hot/cold temps and sweating – leads to itchy skin or “prickly heat” symptoms. In the summer the sweating leads to itching, and in the wintertime it’s dry skin that leads to itching
  • Infection – from bacteria, viruses and even fungus
  • Allergens – pollens, dust mites, animal dander, mold
  • Hormones – flares in female patients often occur when certain hormones increase or decrease

How can I control Atopic Dermatitis?

  • Be consistent with your daily skin care routine.
  • Recognize stressful situations and events and learn to avoid or cope with them by using techniques for stress management
  • Be mindful of scratching and rubbing and limit contact with materials or substances that irritate your skin. Dress in soft, breathable clothing and avoid itchy fabrics like wool.