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What Causes Atopic Dermatitis (Eczema)?

Eczema is not a single skin condition but actually includes several different conditions, including atopic dermatitis, contact dermatitis, dyshidrotic eczema, nummular eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, and stasis dermatitis. All types of eczema can cause a person’s skin to feel itchy or become inflamed. They may also cause a rash-like appearance. According to the National Eczema Association, the condition is very common, with more than 31 million Americans reporting issues with some form of eczema.

Signs of Atopic Dermatitis

One of the more common forms of eczema, atopic dermatitis, can happen at any age but is very common in children. Symptoms of the skin condition can vary but often include:

  • Dry skin
  • Itching, which may be severe, especially at night
  • Red to brownish-gray patches, especially on the hands, feet, ankles, wrists, neck, upper chest, eyelids, inside the bend of the elbows and knees, and, in infants, the face and scalp
  • Small, raised bumps, which may leak fluid and crust over when scratched
  • Thickened, cracked, scaly skin
  • Raw, sensitive, swollen skin from scratching

There is no cure for atopic dermatitis, but there are treatments and certain self-care measures that can limit outbreaks and reduce itching. For instance, moisturizing twice a day can help, as can switching to gentler soaps and taking shorter showers with water that is warm rather than hot. Even how a person dries off after a shower can affect eczema. It’s better to gently pat the body dry rather than rubbing vigorously.

Causes of Eczema

While there is currently no single known cause of eczema, there are triggers that people can work to avoid. Common triggers include dry skin and irritants including plant pollens and dust mites, metals (especially nickel), cigarette smoke, certain soaps and household cleansers, fragrances, and fabrics like wool and polyester.

Stress may also be a trigger for eczema. The National Eczema Association found in a recent survey that more than 30% of people with atopic dermatitis also had a diagnosis of depression or anxiety. While we’re still learning about this connection, researchers believe that some people with eczema may produce too much cortisol when they experience stress. An abundance of cortisol can suppress the immune system and result in an inflammatory skin response.

Eczema Treatments

If following the steps above aren’t effective, a doctor may suggest the following:

  • Corticosteroid creams to control itching and help repair the skin.
  • Oral or cream antibiotics to handle any bacterial infection that may enter the body from cracks in the skin.
  • Oral corticosteroids — such as prednisone — for short-term use to control inflammation.
  • Antihistamines to control flares caused by allergies and to control the itching.
  • Topical immunomodulating medications like tacrolimus (Protopic) can be used to reduce the number of flares and the need for corticosteroids.
  • A new, injectable biologic (monoclonal antibody) called dupilumab (Dupixent) has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for those that don’t respond well to other treatments.

Atopic dermatitis and other forms of eczema are common but can be managed. Consult an allergist to learn more about ways you can manage this inflammatory condition.

At Columbia Allergy, we are experts in the treatment of asthma or allergies. Our providers are here to help with a patient-focused approach. Contact us at any of our convenient locations in California, Oregon, Idaho or Washington to learn more about how we can help with your unique challenges and goals.

This is not medical advice. Please consult a medical professional for a formal diagnosis of any medical concerns.

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