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Atopic dermatitis and eczema are often associated with each other and are sometimes used interchangeably when describing skin conditions. Why is this? 

Knowing which condition you have is essential for determining effective treatments, minimizing risk factors and taking preventative measures to restore healthy skin. 

Skin disorders can lead to bacterial infections and should be treated promptly to prevent further health complications! Here’s everything you need to know about the relationship between eczema and atopic dermatitis.

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

Eczema and atopic dermatitis (AD) are closely related because AD is a type of eczema. AD is the most common type of eczema out of seven different types.

An estimated 31.6 million people have a form of eczema, with an estimated 26.1 of those people having atopic dermatitis specifically (National Eczema Association.)

Types of Eczema

Common types of eczema include atopic dermatitis, contact dermatitis, neurodermatitis, dyshidrotic eczema, nummular dermatitis, seborrheic dermatitis and stasis dermatitis. The main difference between the different types of eczema is the location where skin irritation manifests and the trigger or source of the reaction.

Atopic Dermatitis

Atopic dermatitis is an allergic reaction on the skin that causes red patches of inflammation, typically on the knees and elbows, but can develop anywhere on the body.

Contact Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis is a skin reaction triggered by direct contact with an irritating substance. An example is poison ivy.


Neurodermatitis is a form of eczema that progresses and worsens due to a neurological urge to itch and scratch.

Dyshidrotic Eczema

Dyshidrotic eczema is a sudden, itchy rash with blisters that develop on the palms and fingers.

Nummular Dermatitis

Nummular dermatitis typically appears as coin-shaped rashes with sores that spread, ooze and itch.

Seborrheic Dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis is a form of eczema that generally affects the scalp and face, causing dandruff and itchy, flaky skin.

Stasis Dermatitis

Stasis dermatitis develops due to a vein disorder, typically in the lower leg area, that prevents proper blood flow. It can appear as thick, discolored skin and open sores in the ankles and shins.

What is Eczema?

The National Eczema Association defines eczema as “an inflammatory skin condition that causes itchiness, dry skin, rashes, scaly patches, blisters and skin infections.”

Eczema is a general term that comprises seven different skin conditions, all causing skin inflammation and itchiness. When eczema is active and one or more symptoms are apparent, this is called a “flare-up.”

Each person’s experience with eczema flare-ups is different. A flare-up may occur once, and never occur again, or flare-ups may occur occasionally or frequently. Flare-ups may stick around for a few days, up to a few weeks in some cases.

What Causes Eczema?

There are a number of different causes behind eczema, including various environmental factors (pollutants, smoke, ultraviolet light and airborne allergens), food allergies and harsh chemicals in bath products (soaps, shampoos and detergents.)

Eczema is how the skin reacts to an allergen and this reaction can start to develop at any age. Newborns, adolescents and adults can all experience eczema.

When an allergen triggers the immune system to react, this is what causes inflammation, redness and itchiness. Eczema is an allergic reaction on the skin. 

Another cause of eczema is a filaggrin deficiency (caused by a genetic mutation.) Filaggrin is a protein in the body that serves as a natural skin moisturizer. People who are deficient in filaggrin will likely experience dry skin, sensitive skin and itchy skin. 

Risk Factors for Eczema

  • Living in a city with pollution
  • Living in harsh, cold, dry climates
  • Using soap, shampoo, detergent or other products that have harsh ingredients
  • Smoking or being exposed to secondhand smoke
  • Being overweight
  • Being born to a mother who is in her late childbearing years

Can eczema be prevented? 

While eczema cannot be prevented directly, as there are a number of factors that may cause skin irritation, there are precautionary measures you can take to reduce the risk of eczema.

Eating a balanced diet and limiting inflammatory foods, maintaining a healthy weight, protecting your skin from harsh elements and temperatures and moisturizing your skin daily can help prevent eczema from developing, prevent flare-ups or reduce the severity of flare-ups.

Is eczema contagious?

Even when eczema is active, it is not contagious. Allergic reactions, like eczema, cannot be transmitted or spread.

What is Atopic Dermatitis?

Atopic dermatitis (AD) is an atopic disease, meaning it’s caused by an immune system dysfunction that triggers an allergic reaction in the body. An inflammatory skin condition, atopic dermatitis is the most common type of eczema. 

Also called atopic eczema, AD is often present alongside other atopic conditions (called comorbidities), including hay fever and asthma. Atopic eczema may also be present with other types of eczema, and mental disorders, such as ADHD, depression and anxiety.

Like ‘eczema’, ‘atopic eczema’ is an umbrella term that covers three different inflammatory skin conditions, including allergic contact dermatitis, discoid eczema and dyshidrotic eczema.

Types of Atopic Eczema

Allergic Contact Dermatitis 

A rash or skin inflammation caused by coming in contact with a certain irritant. This form of AD generally occurs in response to a harsh chemical in bath products or detergents.

Discoid Eczema

Also called nummular or discoid dermatitis, may be present when eczema patches appear in scattered, circular formations. Discoid eczema often develops in response to skin irritants or due to severe skin dryness.

Dyshidrotic Eczema

This manifests as small blisters on the fingers, palms and soles of the feet. These blisters are known for feeling extremely itchy with a burning sensation. Dyshidrotic eczema may be triggered by touching metals, specifically nickel and due to stress or seasonal allergies.

What Causes Atopic Eczema?

A person with AD may be born with this skin condition, or it may develop over time. The same triggers that cause eczema flare-ups cause atopic eczema flare-ups.

Atopic dermatitis may develop due to genetics, various environmental factors, harsh ingredients in bath products and detergents, sensitivity to sunlight and exposure to common allergens (pet dander, pollen, food allergies.)

Risk Factors for Atopic Eczema

  • Having a family history of eczema
  • Having environmental allergies or food allergies
  • Having a filaggrin deficiency
  • Living in a region with a harsh climate

Can Atopic Dermatitis Be Prevented?

The same way you can take measures to avoid triggers and potential allergens to prevent eczema is the same way you can work to prevent atopic dermatitis. 

Certain risk factors (like genetics and family history) cannot be prevented, whereas other causes (like using products with harsh chemicals or skin irritants) can be avoided. 

Is Atopic Dermatitis Contagious?

Atopic dermatitis is not contagious, even during an active infection. An immune system reaction cannot be passed from person to person.

Signs and Symptoms of Eczema and Atopic Dermatitis

Overall, all types of eczema are characterized by challenging skin symptoms related to inflammation, itchiness and dryness.

Both eczema and atopic dermatitis flare-ups generally appear in the form of:

  • Skin rashes
  • Dry skin
  • Patches of red or purple skin
  • Itchy skin
  • Scaly patches
  • Inflamed skin in affected areas
  • Oozing bumps on affected areas

Skin patches often appear near creases in the body, such as the knees or elbows, as well as on the face, chest, neck feet, ankles, hands and wrists.

How Eczema and Atopic Dermatitis are Diagnosed

Physical Examination

Atopic dermatitis and other types of eczema are often diagnosed through a physical examination from an experienced dermatologist (like ours!) Your dermatologist will examine your rash if it’s present, assess your medical history, discuss your family health history and discuss which types of bath products and detergents you use.

When a person with eczema visits one of our experienced dermatologists in Lake Nona, our goal is to pinpoint the source of the skin reaction – whether it’s due to an environmental allergen, food allergen or contact allergen.

By understanding your health history as well as your family’s health history, we can better determine whether your case of eczema is due to an allergen or genetic predisposition. 

Patch Test

If allergies are the suspected cause, your dermatologist may order a patch test to help identify the specific allergen or allergens. To complete a patch test, small patches that contain a small sample of the suspected allergens will be adhered to your back and worn for 48 hours. Your dermatologist will then assess your skin’s reaction to each allergen to get a better understanding of which allergens are triggering skin irritation.

Based on the appearance of the rash and its location on the body, your dermatologist may be able to identify the type of eczema or type of atopic dermatitis present, but a skin biopsy may be ordered to determine whether another type of eczema or skin condition is at play too.

How Eczema and Atopic Dermatitis are Treated

While there is no cure for eczema, because it is a chronic disorder, there are treatments available to reverse, eliminate or lessen symptoms of mild to severe eczema.

Treatment for eczema and atopic dermatitis symptoms may be a topical treatment, systemic treatment or medical treatment.

Eczema treatment is aimed at improving overall health with various lifestyle changes, treating inflammation, healing itchy skin, suppressing the immune system’s response to allergens and allowing the skin to repair itself.

When it comes to eczema, the best treatment method will depend on the type of eczema. For example, because atopic dermatitis generally manifests around the elbows and knees, a topical medication for the affected area may be prescribed, as well as an oral medication, such as an antihistamine or antibiotics.

On the other hand, seborrheic dermatitis (seborrheic eczema), another type of eczema that affects the scalp and tends to cause dandruff, itchy scalp may be treated best with a medicated shampoo and/or topical treatment. 

Topical Therapy

Topical therapy includes steroids, or topical corticosteroids, medicated creams and non-steroidal topical calcineurin inhibitors (TCIs.) Topical medications may be prescription or non-prescription and can help relieve itching, prevent redness and inflammation and reduce the severity of future flare-ups for atopic dermatitis and other types of eczema.

Oral Therapy

Oral medications may be necessary to suppress the immune system, as an autoimmune disorder is caused by overactive immune system cells. Antibiotics, antihistamines and anti-inflammatory medicines are all potential treatment options, depending on the specific triggers.

For atopic dermatitis specifically, oral antihistamines, oral corticosteroids or oral immunosuppressants may be prescribed to combat symptoms.

Comprehensive Treatment Plan

Because eczema is a chronic skin condition, it can flare up at certain times and then not be present at all other times. Our goal is to create a comprehensive treatment and lifestyle plan that helps you rid or reduce your symptoms, minimize common risk factors and prevent or lessen the severity of future flare-ups.

Once our experienced UCF Health dermatologist, Dr. Naveed Sami, diagnoses your condition, he can help you make the best treatment decision for your case.

At UCF Health, we take a comprehensive approach to healthcare. Dr. Sami works closely with our renowned rheumatology team and other physicians to ensure a comprehensive, seamless treatment experience.

Recognized nationally and internationally for his expertise in treating complex dermatologic conditions, Dr. Naveed Sami is a trusted name in the medical community. With us, you’re in great hands.

When skin diseases or disorders are present, it can take a toll on your health and happiness. We want to help you live your greatest quality of life – and that has everything to do with healthy skin. After all, our skin is our largest organ.

We’ll develop a plan that integrates healthy lifestyle changes, including positive stress management techniques, healthy diet, sufficient sleep and avoiding known triggers, along with an oral or topical medication (if necessary) to help you find relief. 

Schedule an appointment with an experienced, top-rated dermatologist near you.