If someone were to ask you “Have you ever had atopic dermatitis?” your answer would probably be “Of course not.” Then again, if you have been living on this Earth for more than 5 years, chances are you have experienced the disease, in one form or another, without even realizing it. As it turns out, dermatitis is just another word for eczema and a very large part of the world’s population has already been or currently is affected by it.

Technically speaking, atopic dermatitis is a form of eczema, but modern literature uses many different terms for it. As an inflammatory, non-contagious and relapsing skin disorder, it is easily recognizable by the various signs that affect children within the first years of age: the skin reacts abnormally to outer irritants like clothes or food patches of skin become flaky; it becomes red and itchy in spots; it predominantly appears on the hands, feet, ankles and wrists. Although the condition is most common in very young children, it can occasionally pass on into adulthood or even show up for the first time at a mature age.

For the average chronic atopic dermatitis sufferer, the course of the disease is filled with slopes and slides, with periods in which the rash becomes worse (flares or exacerbations), followed by phases in which the skin improves a great deal or the symptoms disappear entirely (remissions). Many young patients enter a permanent stage of remission as they get older but, however, they are left with rather dry and sensitive skin, prone to irritation throughout their entire lives.

As in the case of many other skin rashes of this kind, atopic dermatitis too is considered to be hereditary, and cases in which entire families suffer from the same disorder are not scarce at all. Research shows the importance of the genetic structure in shaping the way our immune system processes external impacts and reacts. With this idea in mind, we can safely assume that a specific, genetically-induced “malfunction” is responsible for the emergence of such skin conditions. Even though it is passed on from one generation to another, it can become aggravated by intake or contact with certain substances or materials, called allergens.

Some researchers have even underlined the effect that factors like fatigue and stress have on the immune system, and as a result, these factors are considered to be indirect causes. Statistically, the disease seems to affect people of the upper social classes more often and it is diagnosed in a higher percentage in women. Also, it tends to be more frequent in cases in which a woman gives birth later in her childbearing years. In addition, living in developed cities, where the level of pollution is high, increases the risk considerably. Urban lifestyle and increased exposure to the artificial chemicals used in food production are also major factors that contribute to the appearance or aggravation of the symptoms.

Atopic dermatitis can be treated only partially, meaning that treatment solely addresses the easing of the symptoms and help to maintain longer periods of remission between outbreaks. This is achieved through the use of different products designed to fight skin dryness (lotions, moisturizers) on one hand, and through prescription drugs and light therapy on the other. Bolder, more inquisitive people can also try different herbal extracts and mixtures found in traditional Chinese traditional medicine, bathing in sea water, using sulfur, climatotherapy, or other forms of alternative treatment.

Eliminating preservatives and artificial chemicals can also determine the amelioration or the complete disappearance of the symptoms. Given that there is no particular cure for atopic dermatitis, the best tactics to follow after treatment is that of discovering what exactly triggers the allergic reaction and learning to avoid them.