Atopic Dermatitis and Eczema

Authored by , Reviewed by Dr Laurence Knott | Last edited | Meets Patient’s editorial guidelines

This article is for Medical Professionals

Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find the Atopic Eczema article more useful, or one of our other health articles.


Treatment of almost all medical conditions has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. NICE has issued rapid update guidelines in relation to many of these. This guidance is changing frequently. Please visit https://www.nice.org.uk/covid-19 to see if there is temporary guidance issued by NICE in relation to the management of this condition, which may vary from the information given below.

Atopic dermatitis, also know as atopic, eczema is a chronic, relapsing, inflammatory skin condition characterised by an itchy red rash that favours the skin creases such as the folds of the elbows or behind the knees[1].

  • Atopic eczema is common and the prevalence is increasing.
  • Estimates vary due to the different populations examined, but figures suggest that it affects about 10–30% of children, and about 2–10% of adults.
  • It presents most frequently in childhood, but can present at any age. Around 70–90% of cases occur before 5 years of age, with about 45% of cases beginning in the first 6 months of life.
  • There is an increased prevalence of atopic eczema in children with an affected parent (about 80% of children where both parents are affected, and 60% if only one parent is affected).
  • There is an increased rate of atopic eczema in urban areas, smaller families, and higher socio-economic classes.

Trigger factors[3, 4]

Environmental irritants and allergens

  • Irritants - eg, soaps and detergents (including shampoos, bubble baths, shower gels and washing-up liquids).
  • Skin infections: Staphylococcus aureus is believed to be an important exacerbating factor in atopic eczema.
  • Contact allergens.
  • Extremes of temperature and humidity. Most patients improve in summer and are worse in winter. Sweating induced by heat or exercise can provoke an exacerbation.
  • Abrasive fabrics - eg, wool.
  • Dietary factors aggravate atopic eczema in about 50% of children but much less frequently in adults. Food allergy should be suspected in children with atopic eczema who have reacted previously to a food, with immediate symptoms, or in infants and young children with moderate or severe atopic eczema that has not been controlled by optimum management, particularly if associated with gut dysmotility (colic, vomiting, altered bowel habit) or failure to thrive.
  • Inhaled allergens - eg, house dust mites, pollens, pet dander and moulds. Inhaled allergy should be suspected in children with seasonal flares of atopic eczema, associated asthma and rhinitis, or children aged over 3 years with atopic eczema on the face.

Endogenous factors

  • It is thought that genetic mutations affect the production of filaggrin. Filaggrin is a protein critical to the conversion of keratinocytes to the protein/lipid squames that compose the stratum corneum, the outermost barrier layer of the skin. Therefore, in at least some patients with atopic eczema, there is a genetic predisposition that increases their sensitivity to external environmental triggers.
  • Stress may exacerbate atopic eczema, which itself may be a cause of psychological distress.
  • Hormonal changes in women - eg, premenstrual flare-ups, deterioration in pregnancy.
  • Must have an itchy skin condition (or report of scratching or rubbing in a child) plus three or more of the following:
    • History of itchiness in skin creases such as folds of the elbows, behind the knees, fronts of ankles, or around the neck (or the cheeks in children aged 18 months or under).
    • History of asthma or hay fever (or history of atopic disease in a first-degree relative in children aged under 4 years).
    • General dry skin in the preceding year.
    • Visible flexural eczema (or eczema affecting the cheeks or forehead and outer limbs in children aged under 4 years).
    • Onset in the first two years of life (not always diagnostic in children aged under 4 years).
  • If it does not itch it is very unlikely to be eczema. 

Eczema on arms

Atopic eczema on arms
Jambula at English Wikipedia (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

By Jambula at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

  • The distribution tends to vary with age and the appearance of persistent lesions may alter with scratching.
  • A tendency to dry skin persists throughout life.
  • Acute flare-ups vary in appearance from vesicles to areas of poorly demarcated redness. Other possible features include crusting, scaling, cracking and swelling of the skin.
  • Repeated scratching often leads to thickening of chronic lesions.
  • During infancy, atopic eczema primarily involves the face, the scalp and the extensor surfaces of the limbs. It is usually acute. The nappy area is usually spared.
  • In children and in adults with long-standing disease, eczema is often localised to the flexure of the limbs.
  • Adults: often generalised dryness and itching.
  • Chronic eczema on the hand may be the primary manifestation.
  • Bacterial infection is suggested by:
    • Crusting, weeping, pustulation and/or surrounding cellulitis with erythema of otherwise normal-looking skin.
    • A sudden worsening of the condition.
  • Eczema herpeticum is suggested by[4]:
    • Areas of rapidly worsening, painful eczema.
    • Clustered blisters consistent with early-stage cold sores.
    • Punched-out erosions (circular, depressed, ulcerated lesions) usually 1-3 mm that are uniform in appearance (may coalesce to form larger areas of erosion with crusting).
    • Possible fever, lethargy or distress.

In assessment of severity, psychological and psychosocial well-being and quality of life, take into account the impact of atopic eczema on parents or carers, as well as the child and provide appropriate advice and support. The following assessment tools can be used (see links under 'Further Reading', below):

  • Visual analogue scales (0-10) capturing the child/parent/carer's assessment of severity, itch and sleep loss over the previous three days and nights.
  • Patient-oriented Eczema Measure (POEM).
  • Children's Dermatology Life Quality Index (CDLQI).
  • Infants' Dermatitis Quality of Life Index (IDQOL).
  • Dermatitis Family Impact (DFI) Questionnaire. 
  • Investigations are rarely required to establish the diagnosis.
  • Most children with mild atopic eczema do not need clinical testing for allergies[4].
  • There is no evidence of the value of high-street or internet allergy tests in the management of atopic eczema[4].
  • Estimation of immunoglobulin E (IgE) and specific radioallergosorbant tests (RASTs) only confirm the atopic nature of the individual.
  • Swabs for bacteriology are particularly useful if patients do not respond to treatment, in order to identify antibiotic-resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) or to detect additional streptococcal infection.

Atopic eczema is associated with other atopic disease such as asthma, hay fever and allergic rhinitis.

  • Provide information about the condition, the factors that may provoke it, the role of different treatments and their effective and safe use. It is important to emphasise the correct quantities of topical treatments to use. Use written information to reinforce information discussed.
  • Include information on how to recognise flares of atopic eczema (increased dryness, itching, redness, swelling and general irritability).
  • Information should also include how to recognise the symptoms and signs of bacterial infection with staphylococcus and/or streptococcus (weeping, pustules, crusts, atopic eczema failing to respond to therapy, rapidly worsening atopic eczema, fever and malaise).
  • Provide support: living with skin disease, especially the potential psychosocial difficulties, can be very difficult.
  • Provoking factors should be identified and avoided when practical. Avoid anything that is known to increase disease severity: advise avoidance of extremes in temperature and humidity, avoid irritating clothes containing wool or certain synthetic fibres (use non-abrasive clothing fabrics, such as cotton).
  • Advise keeping nails short and avoid use of soaps or detergents; replace with emollient substitutes (use gloves when unable to avoid handling irritants such as detergents).
  • Keep the skin hydrated: use of baths and bath additives and reduction of water loss by the use of sufficient appropriate emollient therapy, used liberally.
  • A stepped approach should be used for managing atopic eczema in children, ie tailoring the treatment step to the severity of the atopic eczema. Management can then be stepped up or down, according to the severity of symptoms.
  • Emollients should form the basis of atopic eczema management and should always be used, even when the atopic eczema is clear.

Emollients and moisturisers

  • These are best applied when the skin is moist but they should also be applied at other times.
  • They should be applied as liberally and frequently as possible and continual treatment with complete emollient therapy (combinations of cream, ointment, bath oil and emollient soap substitute) will help to provide maximal effect.
  • Ideally the frequency of application of emollients should be every four hours or at least 3-4 times per day.
  • They should be prescribed in large quantities, with the recommended quantities used in generalised eczema being 500 g/week for an adult and 250 g/week for a child.
  • Intensive use of emollients will reduce the need for topical steroids.
  • Education on how to use emollients is essential to ensure maximal rehydration of the skin.

A Cochrane review found that most moisturisers showed some beneficial effects, prolonging time to flare, and reducing the number of flares and amount of topical corticosteroids needed to achieve similar reductions in eczema severity. There was no reliable evidence that any one moisturiser was better than another[8].

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA)has published warnings about the risk of severe and fatal burns with the use of all paraffin-based emollients, regardless of paraffin concentration. Data suggest there is also a risk for paraffin-free emollients. Advise patients who use these products not to smoke or go near naked flames, and warn about the easy ignition of clothing, bedding, dressings and other fabric that have dried residue of an emollient product on them[9].

Topical steroids

  • Mild corticosteroids are generally used on the face and on flexures; potent corticosteroids are generally required for use on adults with discoid or lichenified eczema or with eczema on the scalp, limbs and trunk.
  • It is recommended that topical corticosteroids for atopic eczema should be prescribed for application only once or twice daily[10].
  • Use mild potency for mild atopic eczema, moderate potency for moderate atopic eczema and potent for severe atopic eczema.
  • Use mild potency for the face and neck, except for short-term (3-5 days) use of moderate potency for severe flares.
  • Use moderate or potent preparations for short periods only (7-14 days) for flares in vulnerable sites such as the axillae and groin.
  • Do not use very potent preparations in children, without specialist dermatological advice.
  • Patients using moderate and potent steroids must be kept under review for both local and systemic side-effects.
  • Chronic eczema in adults: this often requires a potent steroid together with emollients and allergen avoidance.

Topical corticosteroid (TCS) withdrawal[11, 12, 13]
TCS withdrawal is a potential complication of topical steroid treatment, particularly where there has been an inappropriate long-term use of moderate-to-potent steroid. Symptoms include red skin, burning pain or stinging, itch, skin peeling and oozing, papules, pustules, or erosions, and excessive sweating. Severe and prolonged symptoms may lead to depression. The outlook is variable. Symptoms may be mild and short-lived or may be severe and last for months or even years. In some cases, severe symptoms may settle after several days or a few months, followed by a prolonged period of dry, itchy skin but with gradual improvement.

Bacterial infection

  • Emollient antimicrobial preparations can help prevent infection.
  • Oral antibiotics are often necessary in moderate-to-severe infection; a 14-day course should be given.
  • With regard to antibiotic treatment if not systemically unwell, NICE recommends[14]:
    • First-choice topical antibiotic: topical fusidic acid 2%, applied three times a day for 5-7 days.
    • First-choice oral antibiotic: flucloxacillin.
    • Alternative oral antibiotic if penicillin allergy or if flucloxacillin is unsuitable: clarithromycin.
    • Alternative oral antibiotic if penicillin allergy or if flucloxacillin is unsuitable, and the person is pregnant: erythromycin.
    • If meticillin-resistant: consult a microbiologist.
  • Penicillin should be given if beta-haemolytic streptococci are isolated.
  • Steroid-antibiotic combinations are effective in clinical practice although there is no evidence for greater efficacy.

Lichenification

  • Results from repeated scratching.
  • Initially treated with a potent corticosteroid.
  • Bandages containing ichthammol paste (to reduce pruritus) and other substances such as zinc oxide may be applied over the corticosteroid.
  • Coal tar and ichthammol can be useful in some cases of chronic eczema[15].

Exudative eczema

  • Initially, this requires a potent corticosteroid.
  • Infection may also be present and requires treatment.
  • Potassium permanganate solution (1 in 10,000) can be used in exudative eczema, for its antiseptic and astringent effect.

Diet[4]

  • Hydrolysed formulas should not be offered to infants in preference to breast milk for the prevention of atopic eczema.
  • Do not use diets based on unmodified proteins of other species' milk (for example, goat's or sheep's milk) or partially hydrolysed formulas for the treatment of suspected cow's milk allergy. Diets including soya protein can be offered to children aged over 6 months, with specialist dietary advice.
  • Refer for specialist dietary advice children who follow a cow's milk-free diet for more than eight weeks.
  • It is not known whether altering a breast-feeding mother's diet is effective in reducing the severity of the condition. A trial of an allergen-specific exclusion diet under dietary supervision may be considered.
  • Parents should be advised that where there is a family history of atopy, exclusive breastfeeding for the first three months reduces the risk of infantile eczema.
  • There is little evidence to support the use of various exclusion diets in unselected people with atopic eczema. However, if food allergy is diagnosed by using thorough diagnostic procedures such as oral food allergy challenges, exclusion of specific trigger foods can make a significant clinical difference. Significant dietary manipulation should always be managed in conjunction with a dietician and/or paediatric allergy specialist[16].

Managing flare-ups

  • Settle inflammation with topical corticosteroids.
  • Treat clinically apparent bacterial infection with oral antibiotics as outlined above.
  • Urgently refer or admit someone with severe unresponsive disease. Admit anyone with suspected infection with herpes simplex virus (eczema herpeticum).

Managing frequent flare-ups

  • Change the emollient to one with a higher lipid content.
  • Advise the person to apply the emollient more often.
  • Recommend applying more emollient each time.
  • Review the factors that might be provoking flare-ups; avoid environmental irritants and stresses where possible.

Tacrolimus and pimecrolimus for atopic eczema

  • The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has recommended that topical pimecrolimus and tacrolimus are options for atopic eczema not controlled by maximal topical corticosteroid treatment or if there is a risk of important corticosteroid side-effects (particularly skin atrophy)[17].
  • Topical pimecrolimus is recommended for moderate atopic eczema on the face and neck of children aged 2-16 years.
  • However, a Cochrane review concluded that topical pimecrolimus is less effective than moderate and potent corticosteroids and 0.1% tacrolimus and that the therapeutic role of topical pimecrolimus is uncertain due to the absence of key comparisons with mild corticosteroids[18].
  • Topical tacrolimus is recommended for moderate-to-severe atopic eczema in adults and in children aged over 2 years.

Immediate (same-day) referral for specialist dermatological advice if eczema herpeticum is suspected.

Urgent (within two weeks) referral for specialist dermatological advice for children with atopic eczema if:

  • Atopic eczema is severe and has not responded to optimum topical therapy after one week.
  • Treatment of bacterially infected atopic eczema has failed.

Referral for specialist dermatological advice is recommended for children with atopic eczema if:

  • The diagnosis is, or has become, uncertain.
  • Management has not controlled the atopic eczema satisfactorily based on a subjective assessment by the child, parent or carer (eg, 1-2 weeks of flares per month or is reacting adversely to many emollients).
  • Atopic eczema on the face has not responded to appropriate treatment.
  • The child or parent/carer may benefit from specialist advice on treatment application (eg, bandaging techniques).
  • Contact allergic dermatitis is suspected (eg, persistent atopic eczema or facial, eyelid or hand atopic eczema).
  • Atopic eczema is causing significant social or psychological problems for the child or parent or carer (eg, sleep disturbance, poor school attendance).
  • Atopic eczema is associated with severe and recurrent infections, especially deep abscesses or pneumonia.

Children with atopic eczema that has responded to optimum management but for whom the impact of the atopic eczema on quality of life and psychosocial well-being has not improved, should be referred for psychological advice.

Children with moderate or severe atopic eczema and suspected food allergy should be referred for specialist investigation and management of the atopic eczema and allergy.

Children with atopic eczema who fail to grow at the expected growth trajectory, as reflected by UK growth charts, should be referred for specialist advice relating to growth.

Systemic drugs acting on the immune system (eg, ciclosporin, azathioprine, and mycophenolate mofetil), and phototherapy are available for the management of some cases of severe refractory eczema, used under specialist supervision. Dupilumab is licensed for the treatment of moderate- to-severe atopic eczema in patients requiring systemic therapy[15].

Alitretinoin is recommended as a treatment option for adults with severe chronic hand eczema that has not responded to potent topical corticosteroids, if the person has severe disease and a Dermatology Life Quality Index (DLQI) score of 15 or more[19].

Baricitinib

Baricitinib selectively and reversibly inhibits the Janus-associated tyrosine kinases JAK1 and JAK2. Baricitinib is recommended by NICE as an option for treating moderate-to-severe atopic dermatitis in adults, only if the disease has not responded to at least one systemic immunosuppressant, such as ciclosporin, methotrexate, azathioprine or mycophenolate mofetil, or these are not suitable[20].

Infection

  • S. aureus infection may present with typical impetigo or as worsening of the eczema with increased redness, oozing and crusting.
  • Herpes simplex infection, indicated by grouped vesicles and punched-out erosions, can also occur. Disseminated herpes simplex viral infection, eczema herpeticum, presents with widespread lesions that may coalesce to large, denuded, bleeding areas that can extend over the entire body.
  • Superficial fungal infections are also more common in people with atopic eczema.

Psychosocial impact

  • Disturbed sleep patterns.
  • Reduced self-esteem because of chronic visible disease.
  • Isolation from other children - eg, when they are unable to take part in swimming.
  • Adverse effects on a child's behaviour and development: poor sleep, reduced self-esteem and social isolation.
  • Usually a relapsing course, with a tendency to gradual improvement in adult life.
  • Atopic eczema can be expected to clear in about 65% of children by the time they are 7 years of age, and in about 74% of children by 16 years of age, although relapses may occur.
  • Predictors of a worse prognosis include early onset of disease and in children with associated asthma.
  • Systematic reviews of prevention strategies (eg, promoting exclusive and prolonged breastfeeding, or reducing ingested or airborne allergens during pregnancy and after birth) have generally not shown convincing benefit.
  • Maternal/infant supplements such as vitamin D have also not shown any benefit with the possible exception of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Systematic reviews suggest that probiotics could reduce the incidence of atopic dermatitis by about 20%, although the studies are quite variable.
  • Skin barrier enhancement from birth to prevent atopic dermatitis and food allergy has received recent interest, and results from national trials are awaited.
  • It is possible that trying to influence major immunological changes through infant-directed interventions may be too late, and more attention to strategies before birth may be more successful.

Further reading and references

  1. Avena-Woods C; Overview of atopic dermatitis. Am J Manag Care. 2017 Jun23(8 Suppl):S115-S123.

  2. Eczema - atopic; NICE CKS, February 2021 (UK access only)

  3. Thomsen SF; Atopic dermatitis: natural history, diagnosis, and treatment. ISRN Allergy. 2014 Apr 22014:354250. doi: 10.1155/2014/354250. eCollection 2014.

  4. Atopic eczema in children; NICE Clinical Guideline (December 2007, last updated March 2021)

  5. Fishbein AB, Silverberg JI, Wilson EJ, et al; Update on Atopic Dermatitis: Diagnosis, Severity Assessment, and Treatment Selection. J Allergy Clin Immunol Pract. 2020 Jan8(1):91-101. doi: 10.1016/j.jaip.2019.06.044. Epub 2019 Aug 29.

  6. Strathie Page S, Weston S, Loh R; Atopic dermatitis in children. Aust Fam Physician. 2016 May45(5):293-6.

  7. Yang EJ, Sekhon S, Sanchez IM, et al; Recent Developments in Atopic Dermatitis. Pediatrics. 2018 Oct142(4). pii: peds.2018-1102. doi: 10.1542/peds.2018-1102.

  8. van Zuuren EJ, Fedorowicz Z, Christensen R, et al; Emollients and moisturisers for eczema. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2017 Feb 62:CD012119. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD012119.pub2.

  9. Emollients risk of severe and fatal burns; Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency

  10. Frequency of application of topical corticosteroids for atopic eczema; NICE Technology Appraisal Guidance, August 2004

  11. Hajar T, Leshem YA, Hanifin JM, et al; A systematic review of topical corticosteroid withdrawal ("steroid addiction") in patients with atopic dermatitis and other dermatoses. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2015 Mar72(3):541-549.e2. doi: 10.1016/j.jaad.2014.11.024. Epub 2015 Jan 13.

  12. Sheary B; Topical corticosteroid addiction and withdrawal - An overview for GPs. Aust Fam Physician. 2016 Jun45(6):386-8.

  13. Fukaya M, Sato K, Sato M, et al; Topical steroid addiction in atopic dermatitis. Drug Healthc Patient Saf. 2014 Oct 146:131-8. doi: 10.2147/dhps.s6920. eCollection 2014.

  14. Secondary bacterial infection of eczema and other common skin conditions: antimicrobial prescribing; NICE Guideline (March 2021)

  15. British National Formulary (BNF); NICE Evidence Services (UK access only)

  16. Leins L, Orchard D; Eczema management in school-aged children. Aust Fam Physician. 2017 Dec46(12):896-899.

  17. Tacrolimus and pimecrolimus for atopic eczema; NICE Technology Appraisal Guidance, August 2004

  18. Ashcroft DM, Chen LC, Garside R, et al; Topical pimecrolimus for eczema. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2007 Oct 17(4):CD005500.

  19. Alitretinoin for the treatment of severe chronic hand eczema; NICE Technology Appraisal Guidance, August 2009

  20. Baricitinib for treating moderate to severe atopic dermatitis; NICE Technology appraisal guidance, March 2021

  21. Williams HC, Chalmers J; Prevention of Atopic Dermatitis. Acta Derm Venereol. 2020 Jun 9100(12):adv00166. doi: 10.2340/00015555-3516.

ive had these patches for about a year now that dont move or grow. it started with 1, now i have about 10

jane63564
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