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Atopic eczema

Atopic eczema, also called atopic dermatitis, is a very common skin condition that causes your skin to be dry, itchy and red (inflamed).

"Atopic" is a term used to describe a group of conditions such as asthma, eczema and hay fever. Atopic eczema is more common if you have one of these conditions or a family member is affected with one.

Atopic eczema most frequently occurs in babies and children, though sometimes it can occur for the first time when you're an adult. Many children grow out of atopic eczema, but it can return years later.

The exact cause of eczema is not known but health professionals believe it's caused by a combination of genes and environmental factors. Some people with atopic eczema have a lower amount of a protein called filaggrin. Filaggrin plays an important role in keeping the skin barrier healthy, so having a lower level leads to dry skin and increases the risk of developing eczema.

People with atopic eczema also tend to have an overactive immune system which can be triggered by a substance inside or outside of the body, causing inflammation. Watch this video to learn more about what causes eczema.

Symptoms of eczema

Itch is the main symptom of eczema. People often scratch their skin because of the itch, which can be moderate to severe and often worse at night. Skin may also be dry, inflamed and cracked.

Eczema can be mild, moderate or severe. When eczema worsens it’s called a flare up. Mild cases involve one or two affected areas. With severe flare ups, many areas of your skin can be affected and it can last for several weeks.

Eczema can affect any area of the skin:

Sometimes your skin can become infected. Signs and symptoms of infection include:

Important

If you suspect infected eczema, see a doctor or nurse as soon as possible. You may need antibiotics to treat the infection.

Triggers for eczema

A trigger is something that makes your eczema worse (flare up) and can vary from person to person. Common triggers include:

Diagnosing eczema

Your doctor will usually diagnose eczema based on your medical history including your symptoms and what your skin looks like. Blood tests and skin tests are not usually necessary.

Treating atopic eczema

Treating atopic eczema involves looking after your skin, including moisturising and using medicated creams if needed. See Treating atopic eczema in adults and Treating atopic eczema in children for more information.

Getting help for eczema

See your doctor if you're concerned about your skin or think you may have an infection.

Eczema not only impacts your skin but can also affect quality of life. It can affect sleep, self-esteem (particularly if it's visible on your hands or face), work and personal relationships. See your GP if your eczema is affecting your mood.

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On the next page: Treating atopic eczema in adults

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed August 2021.

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Review key: HIEXZ-21485