Eczema, or atopic dermatitis, is a skin condition that often occurs in childhood. It can cause patches of skin to become itchy, dry, and rough. Although less common, people can also receive a diagnosis of eczema during their adult years.

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Eczema involves different kinds of skin inflammation. People with the condition may develop rashes or have patches of dry and itchy skin.

Doctors also refer to eczema as atopic dermatitis (AD), the most common form of dermatitis.

Eczema flare-ups can result from:

  • stress
  • skin irritants
  • allergies

The treatments for the condition range from prescription skin ointments to dietary changes. While children experience eczema more often, many individuals develop it later in life.

This article will review what there is to know about adult-onset eczema, from diagnosis to treatment.

Research estimates that 1 in 10 individuals will develop eczema during their lifetime, with the condition’s prevalence peaking in early childhood.

In certain cases, the condition develops in childhood and continues into adulthood. In other cases, people may experience the onset of eczema as adults.

When the diagnosis occurs?

Around 60% of people with eczema receive a diagnosis before an infant turns 1 year old.

Additionally, 60% of those with AD received their diagnosis within 12 months, while 16% had a period lasting 2 years.

Adult-onset AD had a higher delay rate, with nearly 20% of adults reporting it took more than 2 years, compared with less than 10% of children under 18 years.

Why does it occur?

Researchers have found that exposure to secondhand smoke may increase the risk of adult-onset eczema. Other skin changes due to aging may also be to blame.

For example, skin becomes drier over the years. This dryness could increase the likelihood of developing eczema later in life. Hormonal changes or high-stress levels may also contribute to adult-onset eczema.

Individuals who experience unusual skin changes in their adult years should consult a medical professional. Experts can provide a full evaluation and recommend treatment if necessary.

Learn more about dermatology and skin care with our dedicated hub.

Health experts do not know what causes childhood and adult eczema precisely. Some factors that may cause the condition include:

Atypical immune system

Issues in the immune system may be one of the possible causes of eczema. This may be partly due to the atypical abnormal expression of proteins called cytokines, which play a role in immune function. When skin cells overproduce cytokines in skin cells, this can lead to eczema symptoms.

Genetic mutations

Some people with eczema have a certain gene mutation that creates filaggrin.

Filaggrin is an important protein that helps maintain the protective barrier on the outermost layer of the skin — the epidermis.

Without enough filaggrin, moisture can escape and allow bacteria, viruses, and allergens to enter the body. This can result in:

Read more about the skin structure and function.

Infections

Certain infections may also cause eczema symptoms. Adults may develop bacterial or viral skin infections that lead to adult-onset eczema.

Learn more about bacterial infection symptoms.

Allergens

Additionally, adults may experience new irritants or allergens for the first time. Allergens in a new environment could trigger an eczema flare-up.

New foods could also trigger an allergic reaction that causes skin irritation.

Read more about food allergies.

Stress

Although the exact cause of eczema is unknown, scientists know that stress can lead to a flare-up or a trigger.

A new job, a cross-country move, or family difficulties are all examples of stressful events that may occur in adult life. For certain people, such triggers could lead to the onset of adult eczema.

Find out the effects of stress on the body.

In adults, eczema may appear in the following locations:

  • backs of the knees
  • crooks of the elbows
  • back of the neck
  • face

Adults with eczema usually experience patches of skin that are itchy, dry, and rough.

As eczema can appear so differently in adults, it may be difficult to spot the symptoms. Adults experiencing skin discomfort or changes should visit a dermatologist. These skin specialists can review symptoms and determine whether eczema is present.

Similarities with childhood symptoms

The symptoms of eczema can differ between children and adults. There some symptoms that occur in both groups may include:

  • extremely itchy skin patches
  • losing sleep because of discomfort
  • skin infections
  • increased risk of allergies

Childhood symptoms

Eczema usually appears on the following areas of the body of an infant:

  • face
  • cheeks
  • chin
  • forehead
  • scalp

Children above the age of 5 years will usually have eczema in the folds of the elbows or knees.

Redness and itchy patches behind a child’s ears, feet, or scalp may also be a sign of AD. However, these could also be symptoms of another condition, such as seborrheic dermatitis, an inflammatory skin issue that can exist with eczema.

Diagnosing adults with eczema can be difficult. A typical eczema diagnosis requires the presence of itchy skin, while the diagnostic criteria also require symptoms that relapse over time.

To diagnose the condition, a doctor will perform a physical exam. If a skin rash meets the eczema criteria and recurs over several months, a doctor can make a diagnosis.

During this exam, a doctor will also rule out other conditions that may have similar symptoms to eczema.

Patch tests

Scientists also recommend patch testing for adults with suspected eczema. This process involves placing patches with different allergens directly onto the skin. If the skin reacts to a certain allergen, doctors may diagnose someone with an allergy to that allergen.

Patch testing can rule out an allergic reaction that is causing a skin rash.

Blood tests and skin tests are usually unnecessary. Occasionally, doctors may need to test the skin to check for infections.

Doctors recommend moisturizers in most cases of adult eczema. Moisturizers can protect the skin by keeping moisture locked in.

They can also prevent bacteria or allergens from interacting with the skin and causing a flare-up.

Lifestyle changes

Lifestyle changes may also help reduce eczema severity by people avoiding certain food triggers.

Read on for eczema diet tips.

Medical treatments

When moisturizing and lifestyle modifications are not enough, doctors may prescribe topical treatments. These come as creams or ointments and work by reducing skin inflammation.

People with eczema may also find relief from the following treatment options:

Other drugs options include:

Photochemotherapy

Another treatment that has shown promise for treating adult eczema is called photochemotherapy. This uses UV radiation to treat various skin conditions.

During psoralen and ultraviolet A radiation (PUVA) treatment, a machine emits light on the affected skin for a short period. Doctors may recommend this treatment for the entire body or certain skin areas with eczema.

Many people who receive PUVA treatment experience improvement in eczema symptoms within a couple of months.

Read more about how effective light therapy is for AD.

Home remedies

Avoiding known allergens, such as dust or certain soaps, may also help. People may also benefit from natural bath soaks such as oatmeal.

Protecting the skin with appropriate gloves can provide relief for those living with eczema.

No treatment protocol is right for every individual with eczema. Therefore, people with the condition should work with a medical team to design a treatment plan that works best for them.

Learn more about possible home remedies for eczema.

There is no cure for eczema, but effective treatment can help manage the symptoms.

Adults living with eczema may deal with emotional challenges related to skin conditions. The financial costs and regular doctor’s appointments may cause further stress or anxiety.

Although eczema may present certain challenges, minimizing symptoms with the right treatment and support is possible.

Although doctors consider eczema a common childhood condition, it can occur in adults. Eczema can develop and present differently between life stages, but many symptoms are consistent.

A healthcare professional can diagnose adult eczema with a physical exam and tests to rule out other conditions. Once they reach a diagnosis, doctors can tailor various treatment options.