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Atopic Eczema

Megan Kinder [email protected]

Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is a recurring, inflammatory skin condition that results in dry, itchy rashes. The exact cause of eczema is unknown, but it is thought to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Eczema most often begins before age 5 and may persist into adulthood.

Atopic eczema - what causes it?

There is no single cause of eczema. It probably has a mixture of inherited and environmental causes that act together at different times.

You may be born with an increased likelihood of developing eczema, which you inherit from your parents. When you are exposed to environmental factors, such as dust or pollen, this causes eczema to appear.

There are also several triggers, which can make your symptoms worse.

Genetic factors of Atopic Eczema

Research suggests that atopic eczema is largely an inherited condition. Read more »

Environmental factors for Atopic Eczema

If your genes make you more likely to develop atopic eczema, the condition will develop after you are exposed to certain environmental factors, such as allergens.

Allergens are substances that can cause the body to react abnormally. This is known as an allergic reaction. Some of the most common allergens that can cause atopic eczema include:

  • house dust mites
  • pet fur
  • pollen

Atopic eczema can sometimes be caused by food allergens, especially in the first year of life. Foods that typically cause allergic reactions include:

  • cows' milk
  • eggs
  • nuts
  • soya
  • wheat

Some studies of children and young people with atopic eczema, which were not carried out in the UK, found that one-third to nearly two-thirds also had a food allergy. Having a food allergy increases the likelihood of your atopic eczema being severe.

See the Heath A-Z topic about Food allergies for more information.

Allergies do not appear to play a role in many people with eczema. Other non-allergic factors may be just as important in bringing out eczema in someone who is likely to get it. These factor could include: 

  • cold weather
  • dampness
  • harsh soaps
  • washing too much 
  • rough clothing

Triggers of Atopic Eczema

Triggers can make atopic eczema worse, although they may not cause the condition. 

Hormonal changes in women, and the effect on Atopic Eczema

Hormones are powerful chemicals that are produced by the body and have a wide range of effects. Changes in the levels of certain hormones can affect the symptoms of atopic eczema in some women.

Many women's eczema is worse at certain times during their menstrual cycle. Some women have a flare-up of their eczema in the days before their period.

Pregnancy, which causes hormonal changes, can also affect atopic eczema:

  • More than half of all pregnant women find their symptoms get worse.
  • One-quarter of pregnant women find their symptoms improve.


While stress is known to be associated with atopic eczema, it is not fully understood how it affects the condition. Some people with eczema have worse symptoms when they are stressed. For other people, their symptoms cause them to feel stressed.

See the Health A-Z topic about Stress for more information and ways to manage stress.


After vigorous exercise, sweating may make your eczema symptoms worse. Try to keep cool when you are exercising by drinking plenty of fluids and taking regular breaks.


Irritants can make your symptoms worse. What irritates you may be different to what irritates someone else with the condition, but could include:

  • soaps and detergents, such as shampoo, washing-up liquid or bubble bath
  • some types of clothing, especially wool and nylon 
  • overheating 
  • very cold, dry weather
  • dust 
  • unfamiliar pets

Other triggers

Other possible triggers include:

  • substances that touch your skin - such as perfume-based products or latex (a type of naturally occurring rubber)
  • some food products - such as fish, peanuts and kiwi fruit, which can make your symptoms worse, although this does not mean you are allergic to them  
  • environmental factors - such as tobacco smoke, living near a busy road or having water that contains lots of minerals (hard water)
  • the changing seasons - most people with atopic eczema find that their symptoms improve during the summer and get worse in the winter

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