Atopic Eczema

What are the aims of this leaflet?

This leaflet has been written to help you understand more about atopic eczema (AE) which is also known as atopic dermatitis (AD). The words eczema and dermatitis mean the same thing, and so atopic eczema is the same condition as atopic dermatitis. For simplicity we shall use atopic eczema or AE in this leaflet. It tells you what it is, what causes it, how it can be treated, and where you can find out more about it.

What is atopic eczema?

Atopic eczema is a very common skin condition due to skin inflammation. It may start at any age but the onset is often in childhood. 1 in every 5 children in the UK is affected by eczema at some stage. It may also start later in life in people who did not have AE as a child.

The term ‘atopic’ is used to describe a group of conditions, which include asthma, eczema and hay-fever and food allergy. These conditions are all linked by an increased activity of the allergy side of the body’s immune system. ‘Eczema’ is a term which comes from the Greek word ‘to boil’ and is used to describe red, dry, itchy skin which can sometimes become weeping, blistered, crusted, scaling and thickened.

What causes atopic eczema?

Atopic eczema is a complex condition and a number of factors appear important for its development including patient susceptibility and environmental factors. Patients typically have alterations in their skin barrier, and overly reactive inflammatory and allergy responses. Environmental factors include contact with soaps, detergents and any other chemicals applied to the skin, exposure to allergens, and infection with certain bacteria and viruses. A tendency to atopic conditions often runs in families (see below) and is part of your genes. An alteration in a gene that is important in maintaining a healthy skin barrier has been closely linked to the development of eczema. This makes the skin of patients with eczema much more susceptible to infection and allows irritating substances/particles to enter the skin, causing itching and inflammation. AE cannot be caught from somebody else.

Is atopic eczema hereditary?

Yes. Atopic eczema tends to run in families. If one or both parents have eczema it is more likely that their children will develop it too. Approximately one third of children with AE will also develop asthma and/or hay fever. AE affects both males and females equally.

What are the symptoms of atopic eczema?

The main symptom is itch. Scratching in response to itch may cause many of the changes seen on the skin. Itch can be severe enough to interfere with sleep, causing tiredness and irritability. Typically AE goes through phases of being severe, then less severe, and then gets worse again. Sometimes a flare up can be due to the reasons outlined below, but often no cause can be identified.

What does atopic eczema look like?

Atopic eczema can affect any part of the skin, including the face, but the areas that are most commonly affected are the creases in the joints at the elbows and knees, as well as the wrists and neck (called a flexural pattern). Other common appearances of AE include coin-sized areas of inflammation on the limbs (a discoid pattern), and numerous small bumps that coincide with the hair follicles (a follicular pattern).

Affected skin is usually red and dry, and scratch marks (accompanied by bleeding) are common. When AE is very active, it may become moist and weep fluid (during a ‘flare-up’) and small water blisters may develop especially on the hands and feet. In areas that are repeatedly scratched, the skin may thicken (a process known as lichenification), and this may cause the skin to itch more. Sometimes affected areas of the skin may become darker or lighter in colour than the surrounding, unaffected skin.

How is atopic eczema diagnosed?

The features of AE are usually easily recognised by health visitors, practice nurses and doctors, when they assess the skin. Blood tests and skin tests are usually not necessary. Occasionally the skin may need to be swabbed (by rubbing a sterile cotton bud on it) to check for bacterial or viral infections.

BRITISH ASSOCIATION OF DERMATOLOGISTS
PATIENT INFORMATION LEAFLET
PRODUCED AUGUST 2004
UPDATED APRIL 2009, APRIL 2013, FEBRUARY 2017
REVIEW DATE FEBRUARY 2020

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