What is atopic eczema?
Atopic eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is a chronic (long-lasting), and common skin condition caused by skin inflammation. It may start at any age but the onset is often in infancy. Atopic eczema is the most common form of eczema, 1 in every 5 children in the UK is affected by atopic eczema at some stage.
Atopic eczema usually occurs in people who have an “atopic tendency”. This means they may develop any or all of three closely linked conditions: atopic eczema, asthma and hay fever. Often these conditions run within families with a parent, child or sibling also affected.
The most common symptoms include itching, dry skin and a rash affecting mainly the skin creases, neck, face and hands. There is currently no cure available for eczema, but it can be effectively treated and managed.
What causes atopic eczema?
We don’t know the exact cause of atopic eczema, but it appears a number of factors are involved in its development including patient susceptibility and environmental factors.
Two main hypotheses have been proposed regarding the development of inflammation that leads to atopic eczema:
- The first hypothesis suggests a primary immune dysfunction resulting in inflammation and leading to secondary alterations in the skin barrier function.
- The second hypothesis proposes a primary defect in the skin barrier. This implies that skin with eczema does not provide the protection from the environment that normal skin does and the alteration of the skin barrier function leads to an increased penetration through skin of environmental irritants. This increases inflammation and sensitivity. Environmental factors include contact with irritants such as soaps, detergents and other chemicals applied to the skin, exposure to allergens, and infection with certain bacteria and viruses.
The recent advances in the understanding of the genetics of atopic eczema tend to support the second hypothesis and suggest that patients develop atopic eczema rather as a result of primary skin barrier defects.
We also know that atopic eczema runs in families, although we don’t know the exact way it is passed from parents to children. If one parent has atopic eczema, asthma, or hay fever, there’s about a 50% chance that their child will have at least one of these diseases. If both parents have one or more of these conditions, the chances are much greater that their child will, too.
Atopic eczema is not contagious. You or your child can not “catch” it from another person, or give it to someone else.
Read also our tips for living with dry skin & eczema.