Atopic dermatitis is a common inflammatory condition that can cause itchy and irritated skin. The condition tends to develop in early childhood but may occur at any age. It can appear anywhere on the skin but most often affects the hands, insides of the elbows, backs of the knees, and the face and scalp.

Atopic dermatitis (AD) is the most common type of eczema, which refers to a group of noncontagious skin conditions that cause the skin to become itchy, inflamed, or have a rash-like appearance.

A 2019 study notes that in the United States, it appears in roughly 11–13% of children and 7–8% of adults.

AD can develop on any area of skin at any age; however, it tends to appear in specific places according to a person’s age. For example, in infants, AD is more likely to occur on the face; for young children, it often develops on the insides of the elbows, and many adults may experience AD on the hands.

This article discusses common areas where atopic dermatitis may occur and which treatments may be beneficial.

Learn more about the different types of eczema here.

A person applying a cream for atopic dermatitis on their face.Share on Pinterest
Maridav/Getty Images

AD is the most common form of eczema, and it typically involves the face. Infants and young children with AD often present with dry, itchy, and irritated skin on their faces. This can also include the neck, scalp, and eyelids. Facial AD can also occur regularly in teens and adults experiencing a flare of AD.

Many treatments for AD are topical creams that help to retain moisture and reduce symptoms of AD. However, doctors may recommend weaker dosages when treating AD on the face to prevent side effects due to the skin being much thinner on the face. They may also suggest other options, such as topical calcineurin inhibitors, which are gentler on sensitive skin.

Learn more about creams for eczema here.

AD commonly appears on the limbs, particularly at the flexures, or skin creases, of the elbows and knees. This is why many people may describe AD as having a flexural distribution, as these skin folds may rub against each other during movements, such as walking, which may exacerbate symptoms.

It is also common for people to experience AD on the hands and wrists. Approximately 50–60% of people with active AD may experience AD on the hands. However, it has a higher prevalence with increasing age.

AD also develops on the lower legs, ankles, and feet.

Treatments for AD on the limbs include:

  • oral medication
  • topical medication
  • moisturizers
  • phototherapy

Treatment also aims to prevent potential triggers. This may include avoiding potential irritants, such as soaps and fragrances, minimizing exposure to chemicals, and wearing gloves at work and home.

The National Eczema Association suggests applying wet wraps to the limbs. This involves wrapping the skin in wet gauze to help retain moisture.

Learn more about phototherapy and AD here.

Some people experience AD on their torso, chest, and stomach. Typically, doctors will prescribe the same treatments as they would for AD on other parts of the body and include oral and topical medications, moisturizers, or phototherapy.

Some people may require assistance when applying topical medications to their back.

Taking lukewarm baths may be a useful home remedy for people with AD in these areas as they can comfortably submerge these areas in soothing water.

Click here to learn more about natural remedies for eczema.

There is currently still some uncertainty about the exact cause of AD. However, growing evidence indicates that genetics, the immune system, and the environment play a role. It is likely that these factors interact and lead to the “leakiness” of the skin barrier, which results in dryness and causes the skin to become irritated and inflamed.

Research suggests that several genes may be involved in the development of AD. A 2021 article also notes that if one parent has AD, their offspring will have more than a 50% chance of developing symptoms. If both parents have AD, this risk can increase to 80%.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases adds that approximately 30% of children with AD have food allergies, and many develop asthma.

Evidence also highlights a link between allergies triggering the immune system and eczema. Experts may refer to this progression of allergic conditions as the atopic march.

It usually starts with AD and food allergies in infancy, developing into allergic asthma and allergic rhinitis in childhood.

Many potential triggers within the environment may exacerbate symptoms of AD. Exposure to various factors, including pollutants, such as tobacco smoke, climate factors, such as temperature, and social factors, such as stress, may contribute to the development of AD.

Learn more about what triggers AD here.

Due to problems with the leakiness of the skin barrier and bacteria on the skin, people with AD are more vulnerable to bacterial, viral, and fungal infections. In particular, common infections include those from the herpes simplex 1 virus and staphylococcus bacteria, which can cause pus-filled bumps, cold sores, and fever blisters.

Living with eczema can also adversely affect a person’s mental health — individuals may worry about their appearance or experience bullying or discrimination. Flare ups may also have links to other issues in some cases, such as:

  • other conditions within the atopic march, such as asthma or hay fever
  • other forms of dermatitis
  • difficulty sleeping from itching
  • scales or areas of hard skin that form from scratching one spot over long periods

Learn more about the potential complications of AD here.

Anyone uncertain about their symptoms or their child’s symptoms should see a doctor. Even with a previous AD diagnosis, if a person notices that symptoms get worse or flare ups seem more regular, it is advisable to talk with a doctor.

Doctors may help identify triggers by ordering allergy tests and can help suggest over-the-counter or prescription drugs to control flare ups.

Additionally, anyone noticing signs of, or suspects a skin infection, should see their doctor.

Atopic dermatitis is a chronic inflammatory condition that may cause itchy, irritated, and inflamed skin. It can occur anywhere on the body, but certain areas may be more common depending on a person’s age. Areas prone to developing atopic dermatitis include the face, hands, and backs of the elbows and knees.

Treatments may vary slightly but typically include oral and topical medications, moisturizers, phototherapy, and home remedies.

It is also advisable for people to avoid exposure to any known triggers. Anyone uncertain about their symptoms or having trouble identifying triggers should contact their doctor.