For members of the public in the UK

What is atopic dermatitis?

Atopic dermatitis is the most common form of eczema,1 affecting more than 1.9 million adults in the UK alone – that is 3% of the entire population.2,3,4

Atopic dermatitis is a disease caused by an overreaction of the body’s natural defence system and inflammation, leading to red and itchy skin.1,5

Anyone of any age can develop the condition, but it is more likely to show itself in early childhood and if someone in the family already has atopic dermatitis. A large proportion of people living with atopic dermatitis have also had either hay fever or asthma.6

Males and females – and people of all nationalities – are all equally likely to be affected by atopic dermatitis.6,7

The most obvious sign of atopic dermatitis is skin that is dry and itchy, but other symptoms include redness, swelling, and thickened or scaly skin.1,8

Every single person’s condition is different. Some people may only have a rash in certain areas, like behind the knees or in the creases of the elbows, while in others it can appear all over the body. Some people may experience flare ups of their atopic dermatitis, while others always show signs of the disease.1

What causes atopic dermatitis?

In healthy skin, the outer layer protects your body from foreign bodies, like germs or allergens such as pollen, getting in. However, in people with atopic dermatitis, the skin is weaker and may be broken, which makes it easier for foreign bodies to get through into the deeper layers of the skin. Inflammation can occur even from a small amount of an irritating substance and this tells the immune system to start a chain reaction that can make the condition worse.5,8

Usually, the body’s natural defence system would stop its attack once the threat had passed. But in atopic dermatitis, the cells of the immune system don’t switch off as they should so even when there is no rash the layers of the skin beneath the surface may still be inflamed.9

This means that even when skin is clear and looks rash-free, the inflammation beneath the surface may still be active and waiting to return.

Unfortunately, atopic dermatitis can be a lifelong condition and can be triggered by stress, fatigue, food intolerances or changes in the environment.1 It can also have a negative impact on people’s physical and mental health by affecting sleep, personal relationships and self-confidence, and causing low mood, depression or anxiety.1,10

However, understanding the cause of atopic dermatitis can help people living with the condition to manage the signs and symptoms and ensure they live life to its full potential.

If you think you or a close friend or family member might be suffering from a chronic skin condition like atopic dermatitis, you can download the ABCs of Atopic Dermatitis here. If you want to find out more, talk to your doctor, nurse or a patient organisation who will be able to answer your questions and give you more information on living with atopic dermatitis.


1. NHS Choices. Available at: Date accessed: March 2019. 2. Allergy UK Eczema: are we just scratching the surface? Available at: Date accessed: March 2019. 3. Nutten S. Ann Nutr Metab. 2015;66(suppl 1):8–16. 4. Based on 3% of predicted population of 65,600,000 people in mid-2016, Office for National Statistics. Available at: Date accessed: March 2019. 5. European Dermatology Forum. Guidelines to treatment. Available at: Date accessed: March 2019. 6. Atopic Dermatitis. Available at: Date accessed: March 2019. 7. What is Atopic Dermatitis? National Eczema Association. Available at: Date accessed: March 2019. 8. Bieber T. N Engl J Med. 2008;358:1483–94. 9. Leung DYM, et al. J Clin Invest. 2004;113:651–657. 10. Simpson EL, et al. Am Acad Dermatol. 2016;74(3):491–498.