Eczema, also called atopic dermatitis, is a hereditary and chronic skin disorder that causes the skin to itch, turn red, and flake.

Eczema is very common. More than 15 million American adults and children have eczema.

The Academy of Dermatology estimates that at least 20 percent of infants and children experience symptoms of eczema. Of children who have eczema, most will show signs of eczema in the first year of life and 90 percent will show signs of eczema within the first five years.

Risk Factors

Eczema mostly affects infants or very young children. Most children outgrow eczema, but in some cases, it may recur in the teenage years or in adulthood. It then becomes chronic dermatitis.

If one or both parents had eczema, there is a good chance their child will, too. Children are also more likely to have eczema when there is asthma, allergy, hay fever, or a food allergy in the family. Research also has found a possible link between exposure to antibiotics as an infant and an increased risk for eczema and asthma in childhood.

Causes

Researchers don't know the exact cause, but many factors can make eczema worse, including environmental irritants and allergies. The condition tends to flare up during times of stress, when the temperature is extremely high or low, when the patient has a bacterial infection, or when the skin is irritated by fabrics or detergents.

The distribution of eczema may change with age. In infants and young children, eczema is usually located on the face, outside of the elbows, and on the knees. In older children and adults, eczema tends to be on the hands and feet, the arms, and on the back of the knees.

Symptoms

Children with eczema are more susceptible to skin infection. Their scratching can spread bacteria or viruses in the areas of the rash. The symptoms of eczema may resemble other skin conditions so it’s important to always consult a doctor for a diagnosis.

Diagnosis

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, blood tests may be performed to diagnose eczema. A doctor will also look at the patient’s family history and personal history of allergies and asthma. Children born to a mother who has allergic conditions are more prone to eczema.

Treatment

There is no cure for eczema. The goals of treatment are to reduce itching and inflammation of the skin, moisturize the skin, and prevent infection. Some common recommendations to manage the condition include avoiding contact with irritants, not using harsh soap, and taking brief baths or showers using lukewarm water. In severe cases, a doctor may also prescribe medications, such as antihistamines, steroid creams, or oral antibiotics.

Medical Reviewer: [Lee Jenkins, Pierce-Smith, R.N., M.S.N., F.N.P., C.C.R.C., Sara Foster, R.N., M.P.H.] Last Annual Review Date: 2009-09-22T00:00:00-06:00 Copyright: © 2000-2010 The StayWell Company, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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