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Atopic dermatitis: Causes

What causes atopic dermatitis?

Dermatologist Jenny E. Murase, MD, FAAD, explains why we get atopic dermatitis and the benefits of treatment, while World Champion softball pitcher Jennie Finch shares her personal experience.

Who gets atopic dermatitis?

Around the world, between 10% and 20% of children have AD. About 1% to 3% of adults have AD. People of all skin colors get AD. 

Most people (90%) get AD before their 5th birthday. AD rarely starts when a person is an adult.

AD is much more common today than it was 30 years ago. Dermatologists are not sure why. They do know that some children have a greater risk of getting AD. The following seem to increase a child’s risk of getting AD: 

  • Family members have AD, asthma, or hay fever: Does the child’s mother or father have AD? Does a parent have asthma or hay fever? A family history of these diseases remains the strongest risk factor. If one or both parents have AD or an allergic condition, the child is much more likely to get AD. Some children get all 3 diseases. Asthma and hay fever usually appear before the age of 30. People often have asthma and hay fever for life.

  • Where child lives: Living in a developed country, city (especially one with higher levels of pollution), or a cold climate seems to increase the risk. For example, Jamaican children living in London are twice as likely to develop AD as those who live in Jamaica.

  • Gender: Females are slightly more likely than males to get AD.

  • Mother’s age when child born: When the mother gives birth to the child later in her childbearing years, a child is more likely to get AD.

  • Social class: AD seems more common in higher social classes.

What causes atopic dermatitis?

Researchers are still studying what causes AD. Through their studies, they have learned that AD:

  • Is not contagious: There is no need to worry about catching it or giving it to someone.

  • Runs in families: People who get AD usually have family members who have AD, asthma, or hay fever. This means that genes play a role in causing AD.

    • Children are more likely to develop AD if one or both parents have AD, asthma, or hay fever.

    • About half (50%) of the people with severe AD (covers a large area of the body or is very troublesome) will get asthma and about two-thirds (66%) will get hay fever.

Can certain foods cause atopic dermatitis?

Types of eczema infographics
Types of eczema infographics
Foods do not cause AD. But some studies suggest that food allergies can make AD worse. Children who have AD often have food allergies to these foods — milk and foods that contain milk (e.g., yogurt and cheese), nuts, and shellfish. 

Before you stop feeding your child any foods, talk about this with your child’s dermatologist. Children need certain foods to grow and develop normally. 

Researchers continue to study what causes this complex disease. They believe that many things interact to cause AD. These things include our genes, where we live, and the way our immune system works.

All content solely developed by the American Academy of Dermatology

Supported in part by: Leo-fnl

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