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What is Atopic Dermatitis?

What is Atopy and Atopic Dermatitis?

You may have heard the term atopy or atopic dermatitis and wondered what it means. Atopy refers to a genetic tendency for hypersensitivity to certain environmental triggers. They often manifest in the form of asthma, hay fever, and atopic dermatitis.

These diseases are often called the atopic triad and are often found together in susceptible individuals. Atopic dermatitis is an extremely common type of chronic eczema that often affects infants and children, and is a common reason that parents bring their children to see a dermatologist.

What are the main symptoms of atopic dermatitis?

Atopic dermatitis inhibits the skin's ability to retain moisture, and results in chronic dry skin and itching which can be severe. Finally, a red rash that occurs in patches will often be visible in certain affected areas of the body. For children, the common sites affected by atopic dermatitis include the back of the elbows and knees, and between the fingers. In many cases the symptoms come and go, receding and flaring at periodic intervals.

If a rash becomes chronic, the skin may blister, forming tiny red bumps that are itchy. Itching is a problem and needs to be controlled as it will worsen the condition, and cause itching to intensify.

  • Chronic dryness of the skin especially at the affected site
  • Itching which can be severe
  • Often affects small patches of the skin
  • Common sites include the back of the knees and elbows for children

Who does atopic dermatitis affect and what causes it?

Atopic dermatitis most commonly affects babies and children. For most people, this skin problem is "outgrown" as they reach their twenties, or become milder.

However, some people continue to suffer from atopic dermatitis in their adult years, and there is no method to know which patients will improve with age and which patients will not. The exact cause of atopic dermatitis is unclear.

It is a hereditary trait, and those with a family history of allergy related problems that form the atopic triad (asthma, atopic dermatitis, hay fever) are more likely to have atopic dermatitis and the other atopic diseases.

It can be thought of as a tendency for hypersensitivity and allergic reactions.

  • Atopic dermatitis has a strong hereditary component and often runs in families
  • It is closely associated with hay fever and asthma
  • It is most commonly seen in infants and children
  • A large number of people will outgrow their condition or see significant improvement in their adult years
  • The exact cause of atopic dermatitis is unknown as there are many complex factors that need to be isolated

How can I manage atopic dermatitis?

Atopic dermatitis is often a chronic condition that requires lifestyle changes and consistent management. When atopic dermatitis is triggered by known allergies, care should be taken to avoid or minimize exposure to these products.

As these patients tend to have extremely sensitive skin it is important to minimize exposure to common irritants more than a person without atopic dermatitis. Washing with soaps and bathing are common activities that when excessive, dry out the skin.

  • Moisturize well and often to control dryness. If left unchecked, the skin can become hard and create cracks, leaving it vulnerable to infection.
  • Identify the triggers that induce rashes. In many cases, the patient should know what the triggers are. Common irritants like soap and detergent often make atopic dermatitis worse.
  • Food allergies are sometimes related to atopic dermatitis, and worsen the itch.
  • Try to minimize scratching. Medication should be used to control itching at an early stage as scratching can become difficult or impossible to control if it is left to become severe.
  • Avoid prolonged baths, and avoid bathing or showering using hot water as it can dry out the skin faster.
  • Treat flares promptly and aggressively. See a dermatologist as soon as possible. If left untreated, itching will often intensify, worsening the skin as scratching is often impossible to control. Unconscious scratching during sleep cannot be controlled even by patients who have enormous willpower to stop scratching.

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