blog atopic dermatitis

If you struggle with patches of dry, itchy, or irritated skin, atopic dermatitis (AD) may be to blame. This common skin condition affects nearly 10 million children and 16.5 million adults in the US, making it the most prevalent form of eczema in the country. While there is no known cure for atopic dermatitis, there are a number of treatment options and lifestyle adjustment strategies that can effectively manage its symptoms. 

In this guide, the board-certified dermatologists at Feinstein Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery explain what causes atopic dermatitis, common symptoms, and treatment options.

Atopic Dermatitis vs. Eczema: What’s the Difference?

Atopic dermatitis is a type of eczema, which is a general term for a group of similar inflammatory skin conditions that cause red, dry, and often itchy skin. However, because AD is the most common form of eczema, many people use the terms “atopic dermatitis” and “eczema” interchangeably, though they are technically different terms.

Other types of eczema include contact dermatitis, dyshidrotic eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, and others. Atopic dermatitis specifically involves a genetic predisposition and immune system dysfunction, setting it apart from other types of eczema.

What Does Atopic Dermatitis Look Like?

Symptoms of atopic dermatitis include itching, dry, cracked skin, red bumps or patches, thickened or darkened skin, and weeping or oozing skin. For some people, atopic dermatitis symptoms appear year-round, while for others, symptoms may be seasonal, often getting worse with dry, cold weather. 

Who Gets Atopic Dermatitis?

Atopic dermatitis often first develops in infants and children between two months and five years old, though it can also less frequently develop later in life. For some people, atopic dermatitis remains a chronic or worsening problem throughout adulthood, while for others, it may subside on its own after puberty.

Those with a family history of atopic dermatitis or a personal history of food allergies, hay fever, or asthma are at a greater risk for developing AD.

What Causes Atopic Dermatitis?

While the exact cause of atopic dermatitis is still unknown, researchers believe that there is likely a strong genetic component to this condition. In addition to genetics, environmental and other factors can play a role in the development and severity of this condition. 

Atopic dermatitis causes at at glance:

  • Genetics. Variations in the genes that are involved in regulating skin barrier function and immune system responses seem to contribute to an increased susceptibility to AD. Notably, mutations in genes such as filaggrin (FLG) are associated with impaired skin barrier function, leading to heightened skin sensitivity and susceptibility to allergens and irritants.
  • Immune system dysregulation. Immune system responses that do not “turn off” once they are no longer needed are believed to contribute to AD. This dysregulation causes chronic inflammation and impaired skin barrier function. 
  • Environmental factors. Certain environmental factors may worsen AD symptoms and cause flare-ups. Some of the most common environmental triggers for atopic dermatitis include extremely hot or cold temperatures, low air humidity, pollutants, allergens, rough fabrics, emotional stress, and certain skincare ingredients such as fragrances and dyes.

In the majority of atopic dermatitis cases, a combination of genetic predisposition, immune system dysregulation, and environmental factors contribute to overall symptoms and flare-ups. This is why a combination treatment approach is often the most effective. 

How Is Atopic Dermatitis Treated?

While there is no known cure for atopic dermatitis, there are a number of treatment methods that can manage symptoms and reduce flare-ups. These include:

  • Skincare regimen adjustments. Consistent use of gentle, fragrance-free barrier repair moisturizers and cleansers helps restore the skin’s natural barrier and prevent moisture loss. Additionally, avoiding skincare or personal care products that appear to cause flare-ups can help to manage symptoms.
  • Trigger avoidance. Identifying and avoiding triggers such as harsh chemicals, allergens, rough fabrics, and extreme weather conditions can help to minimize atopic dermatitis flare-ups.
  • Medical treatments. In some cases, medications such as topical corticosteroids or oral medications may be prescribed for severe itching and inflammation.
  • Phototherapy. In-office light therapy treatments may help to reduce inflammation and itchiness, particularly in resistant cases of AD.
  • Lifestyle adjustments. Lifestyle changes such as introducing effective stress management techniques, eating a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and avoiding foods that may trigger symptoms can help to better manage atopic dermatitis flare-ups.

Exploring the Latest Research on Atopic Dermatitis

As noted above, while there is not currently a known cure for atopic dermatitis, researchers continue to actively explore new treatment options and potential underlying causes of this common skin condition. One of the most promising new treatment options for severe cases of atopic dermatitis are biologic therapies. These therapies target specific immune pathways to regulate the immune system’s response and help to better control symptom flare-ups. 

One of the key advantages of biologic therapies is their ability to address the specific type of  immune dysregulation that contributes to AD. Unlike traditional treatments such as topical corticosteroids or oral medications, which may have broad effects on the immune system, biologics are designed to selectively inhibit or neutralize specific molecules or cells involved in the inflammatory cascade characteristic of AD.

Clinical trials have demonstrated the efficacy of biologic therapies in controlling severe AD symptoms, including reducing inflammation, alleviating itching, and improving skin barrier function. Ongoing research continues to explore the use of biologics to treat severe AD, as well as other inflammatory skin conditions such as psoriasis.

In Summary

Atopic dermatitis is a common inflammatory skin condition that can affect both children and adults. In many cases, the best treatment approach for AD includes a combination of medical intervention, skincare practices, trigger management, and lifestyle modifications. If you suspect you or your child may have atopic dermatitis, make an appointment with your dermatologist to receive an accurate diagnosis and a customized treatment and symptom management plan. 

To make an appointment with one of our board-certified dermatologists at Feinstein Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery in Delray Beach, please give us a call at 561-498-4407, send a text message to 561-816-3197, or easily request an appointment online.