Atopic Dermatitis is the clinical name for eczema, a common skin condition that can affect infants, children and some adults. This chronic condition is uncomfortable and because it can have serious effects on the appearance of the skin, can also be embarrassing. The more the scientific world looks into it, the closer we come to understanding what causes it and how best to successfully treat it.
In simplest terms, atopic dermatitis is an itchy inflammation of the skin. It can affect almost any area of the body but is most common on the arms and legs, particularly behind the knees and in the crook of the elbow. It can also affect the skin around the eyes and the eyelids and the hands. It is characterized by red to brownish-gray patches, severe itching, and skin that can become thick, scaly and irritated from prolonged scratching.
What are the causes of eczema?
The exact cause is unknown. It appears to be the result of a built-in defect of the skin that tends to run in families. This defect causes the skin to lose water and to become dry compared to normal skin. Eczema is not contagious and is not related to your general health.
People with eczema have skin that is dry and easily irritated by soap, detergents, and rough wool clothing. Clothes washed or dried with liquid or sheet fabric softeners such as Cling, may also irritate the skin. Hot and cold weather often aggravate atopic dermatitis as well.
Recently doctors have drawn a connection between the condition and certain allergic reactions, particularly asthma and peanut allergies. It is also believed that a combination of dry, sensitive skin and a malfunction of the immune system leaves certain individuals more susceptible to the illness.
Because atopic dermatitis is so prevalent in babies and children, there have been recent studies done to try and better document the connection between the condition and its development in children. Along with discovering the tie to asthma and peanut allergies, scientists have also been able to establish a link between atopic dermatitis and ADHD.
In particular, it is now believed that peanut allergies are more of a contact allergy, which drew a direct parallel to skin irritation such as eczema. It is now thought that a genetic mutation in the epidermis, or outer layer of the skin, results in severely dry skin, which in turn can lead to the development of both dermatological allergic reactions and skin conditions such as Atopic Dermatitis.
These same studies have also shown that ADHD is more prevalent among children with Atopic Dermatitis, perhaps due to the inability to sleep caused by chronic, severe itching. More research needs to be conducted however to truly establish this link and how or why it exists.
What are the best atopic dermatitis treatment options?
Since eczema patients have a constitutional skin defect, no permanent cure is possible. However, there are very effective ways of controlling it including the use of corticosteroid creams, antibiotics (if a bacterial infection results due to excess scratching), oral antihistamines or immunomodulators.
Your dermatologist can recommend the best course of treatment for you or your child. Some individuals have also found relief through phototherapy, or light therapy. This involves gradual exposure of the affected areas to the UVA and UVB rays of the sun. Since this kind of sun exposure can have long term side effects including the possible development of skin cancer, you should consult your doctor before trying it.
Aside from medication you can try self help measures including avoiding any triggers that worsen symptoms, using topical anti-itch medication such as calamine lotion or taking a warm bath in colloidal oatmeal preparations such as Aveeno. All of these can help to lessen itching and make life more bearable. For atopic dermatitis in infants, avoid triggers including extreme temperature changes and keep your baby’s skin lubricated with baby oil or cream. You may even see better results with a thicker preparation such as Vaseline or Aquaphor.
There are some natural treatments that have shown positive results such as H-Eczema Formula from a company called Amoils.
If you are thinking of trying cortisone products, note that most cortisone salves can be used safely for years. When large areas of the body are treated with strong cortisone preparations however, periodic medical check ups are necessary. Strong cortisones shouldn’t be applied to the face, armpits, groin, or rectal area, and always remember to use a little and massage it in well.