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Eczema types: Atopic dermatitis overview

What is atopic dermatitis?

Atopic dermatitis

Also called eczema, this is a common condition that causes itchy, dry, and inflamed skin. It usually begins in childhood but can start at any age. Board-certified dermatologists have expertise in helping their patients reduce flare-ups and feel more comfortable.

Is atopic dermatitis contagious? No. This condition cannot spread from person to person.

Babies often develop atopic dermatitis on their face

If your baby has a lighter skin tone, you may see a pink or red rash with bumps and swollen skin that may ooze or crust (A). Babies with darker skin tones are more likely to develop small bumps, extremely dry skin, and dark brown, gray, or purple skin where they have atopic dermatitis (B).

Atopic dermatitis on cheeks of baby with lighter skin tone and on face of baby with darker skin tone

Atopic dermatitis, also known as eczema, usually begins early in life. It often appears between 2 months and 5 years of age. While most people develop atopic dermatitis by 5 years of age, this condition can also start during puberty or later.

What’s the difference between atopic dermatitis and eczema?

Eczema refers to a group of conditions that cause inflamed skin. Signs of inflamed skin include a rash, itchiness, and excessive dryness. There are several types of eczema. Atopic dermatitis is the most common type. Other types of eczema include contact dermatitis and stasis dermatitis.

When talking about atopic dermatitis, many people say “eczema” or “atopic eczema.” They usually call other types of eczema by their specific name. If you’re uncertain when you hear the word “eczema” in a health care setting, ask the person what type of eczema they are talking about.

How long does atopic dermatitis last?

It’s a chronic disease, which means it can last a long time. For many children, the condition goes away by their teenage years. However, some people have the condition for life.

There is no way to know whether atopic dermatitis will go away or become a lifelong condition. However, you can prevent it from getting worse by seeing a board-certified dermatologist as soon as you notice signs and symptoms. An early diagnosis and proper treatment can prevent the condition from worsening. The more severe the condition becomes, the more:

  • Difficult it can be to treat

  • Likely a person will have atopic dermatitis as an adult

Even if atopic dermatitis goes away, the skin can still be easily irritated. For example, many people who had atopic dermatitis as a child may have problems doing wet work, which requires you to have wet hands frequently throughout the day. Jobs that involve wet work include working as a nurse, florist, hairstylist, or bricklayer.

When people who had (or have) atopic dermatitis do wet work, they often develop raw, cracked, and irritated skin that may bleed. Your dermatologist may be able to help you manage atopic dermatitis so that you can continue to do a job or hobby that involves wet work. However, sometimes, the best way to manage atopic dermatitis is to stop doing wet work.

Does atopic dermatitis worsen with age?

This condition can worsen. That’s why getting proper treatment soon after you notice signs and symptoms is so important. A treatment plan that’s customized to meet your needs can help prevent atopic dermatitis from worsening.

To benefit from this treatment plan, it’s essential that you stick to it. Follow the recommended skin care, use medication as instructed, and find out what triggers your flare-ups so that you can avoid known triggers.

What can prevent a child from getting atopic dermatitis?

Dermatologists and other researchers are trying to answer this question. It’s an important part of atopic dermatitis research because so many children develop this condition.

So far, nothing is guaranteed to stop this condition from developing. However, the results from one study are promising. All the babies in this study had a high risk of developing atopic dermatitis. During the study, one group of parents followed an eczema friendly skin care routine, which included applying moisturizer to their newborn’s skin every day.

The results from this study showed that the babies who received eczema friendly skin care, which included applying an eczema friendly moisturizer, were less likely to develop atopic dermatitis than the babies who didn’t receive this care.

While more research is needed, the results from this study are encouraging.

Is there a cure for atopic dermatitis?

At this time, atopic dermatitis cannot be cured. However, treatment can ease symptoms and lead to clearer — if not completely clear — skin.

Today, newer medications are easing symptoms for patients who haven’t been helped by previous treatments, and researchers continue to look for better ways to treat this condition. Some of these researchers are dermatologists. The goal of this research is to develop increasingly safe and effective treatments.

Should people with atopic dermatitis keep their skin dry or moist?

You want to keep skin moisturized. Atopic dermatitis causes excessively dry skin. Keeping the skin hydrated with an eczema friendly cream or ointment can help relieve discomfort and reduce flare-ups. That’s why dermatologists recommend that everyone with this condition keep their skin moisturized with a mild, fragrance-free cream or ointment.

To find out how to keep skin moisturized, follow the three steps from dermatologists that tell you How to reduce eczema flares with moisturizer.

Where does atopic dermatitis appear on the body?

It can occur anywhere on the skin or scalp. However, there are certain places where this condition is more likely to develop. To find out where and see pictures of atopic dermatitis, go to Atopic dermatitis: Symptoms.


  • Image 1: Getty Images

  • Image 2: Used with permission of DermNet NZ.

Feldman SR, Cox LS, et al. “The challenge of managing atopic dermatitis in the United States.” Am Health Drug Benefits. 2019 Apr;12(2):83-93.

Lee HH, Patel KR, et al. “A systematic review and meta-analysis of the prevalence and phenotype of adult-onset atopic dermatitis.” J Am Acad Dermatol. 2019 Jun;80(6):1526-1532.e7.

Simpson EL, Chalmers JR, et al. “Emollient enhancement of the skin barrier from birth offers effective atopic dermatitis prevention.” J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2014 Oct;134(4):818-23. 

Simpson EL, Leung DYM, et al. “Atopic dermatitis.” In: Kang S, et al. Fitzpatrick’s Dermatology. (ninth edition) McGraw Hill Education, United States of America, 2019:363-84.

Sidbury R, Tom WL, et al. “Guidelines of care for the management of atopic dermatitis: Section 4. Prevention of disease flares and use of adjunctive therapies and approaches.” J Am Acad Dermatol. 2014 Dec;71(6):1218-33. 

Ständer S. “Atopic dermatitis.” N Engl J Med. 2021 Mar 25;384(12):1136-43. 

Written by:
Paula Ludmann, MS

Reviewed by:
Elaine T. Kaye, MD, FAAD
Ata Moshiri, MD FAAD
J. Klint Peebles, MD, FAAD

Last updated: 10/10/23