Atopic eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is the most common form of eczema. It mainly affects children, but can also affect adults.

Eczema is a condition that causes the skin to become itchy, red, dry and cracked. It is a long-term (chronic) condition in most people, although it can improve over time, especially in children.

Atopic eczema can affect any part of the body, but the most common areas to be affected are:

  • backs or fronts of the knees
  • outside or inside of the elbows
  • around the neck
  • hands
  • cheeks
  • scalp

People with atopic eczema usually have periods when symptoms are less noticeable, as well as periods when symptoms become more severe (flare-ups).

Read more about the symptoms of atopic eczema and diagnosing atopic eczema.

What causes atopic eczema?

The exact cause of atopic eczema is unknown, but it's clear it's not down to one single thing. It often occurs in people who get allergies – "atopic" means sensitivity to allergens.

It can run in families, and often develops alongside other conditions, such as asthma and hay fever.

The symptoms of atopic eczema often have certain triggers, such as soaps, detergents, stress and the weather. Sometimes food allergies can play a part, especially in young children with severe eczema.

Read more about the causes of atopic eczema.

Treating atopic eczema 

There is currently no cure for atopic eczema, but treatment can help relieve the symptoms and many cases improve over time.

However, severe eczema often has a significant impact on daily life and may be difficult to cope with physically and mentally. There is also an increased risk of skin infections. 

Many different treatments can be used to control symptoms and manage eczema, including:

  • self care techniques, such as reducing scratching and avoiding triggers
  • emollients (moisturising treatments) – used on a daily basis for dry skin 
  • topical corticosteroids – used to reduce swelling, redness and itching during flare-ups

Read more about treating atopic eczema and the complications of atopic eczema.

Who is affected?

About one in five children in the UK has atopic eczema. In 8 out of 10 cases, the condition develops before a child reaches the age of five. Many children develop it before their first birthday.

Atopic eczema can improve significantly, or even clear completely, in some children as they get older. About half of all cases improve a lot by the time a child reaches 11 years, and around two-thirds improve by the age of 16.

However, the condition can continue into adulthood and can sometimes develop for the first time in adults.

Other types of eczema

Eczema is the name for a group of skin conditions that cause dry, irritated skin. Other types of eczema include:

  • discoid eczema – a type of eczema that occurs in circular or oval patches on the skin
  • contact dermatitis – a type of eczema that occurs when the body comes into contact with a particular substance
  • varicose eczema – a type of eczema that most often affects the lower legs and is caused by problems with the flow of blood through the leg veins
  • seborrhoeic eczema – a type of eczema where red, scaly patches develop on the sides of the nose, eyebrows, ears and scalp
  • dyshidrotic eczema (pompholyx) – a type of eczema that causes tiny blisters to erupt across the palms of the hands

Page last reviewed: 25/11/2014

Next review due: 25/11/2016