Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education website.

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Am Fam Physician. 2002;66(10):1906

What is atopic dermatitis?

Atopic dermatitis, which is also called eczema, is an itchy skin rash that doesn't go away. It usually starts in childhood. It is common in people with allergies and asthma. The rash is usually behind the knees and in the crease of the elbows, but it can be anywhere on the body. Babies and children are more likely to have the rash on their cheeks.

How do I keep the rash from getting worse?

Keep your skin moist. Use mild soaps. Don't stay in the bath or shower too long, and use lukewarm water. It's good to put on a moisturizing lotion after taking a bath, while your skin is still damp. These lotions can also be used anytime. Avoid wearing clothes made out of scratchy materials like wool. Certain foods might make your rash worse. If you notice that happening, you may want to stop eating those foods.

Are there medicines for the rash?

If lotion doesn't keep the rash under control, your doctor may give you a medicine called cortisone. Cortisone creams and ointments come in different strengths. The ointments work better but are greasier. Creams usually are not as strong, but they soak into your skin more easily. Your doctor may give you a medium-strength medicine to control your rash. Once the rash is under control, your doctor may switch you to a weaker-strength medicine, or tell you to stop using the medicine.

If your rash is very bad or mostly on your face, your doctor may give you new medicines called tacrolimus (brand name: Protopic) ointment, or pimecrolimus (brand name: Elidel). They are safer for long-term use. You may notice some irritation at first, but that goes away as the rash fades.

Your doctor might also give you an antihistamine. This will not cure the rash, but it will help control the itching. Antihistamines can cause sleepiness and are more useful at bedtime.

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