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What is atopic dermatitis?

Atopic dermatitis: the basics

Let’s face it – atopic dermatitis isn’t the easiest thing to understand, even if you’ve lived with it for years. So here’s an outline of what it is, and what makes it different from other types of eczema.

Woman with eczema wearing orange headband trying to understand more about atopic dermatitis

What atopic dermatitis is

Atopic dermatitis (AD) is a condition characterised by an imbalance in the immune system, making it overactive against substances called allergens.1,2 This results in inflammation that, alongside genetic factors, damages the skin barrier, leaving it dry, itchy, and prone to infection.1

AD is a chronic or long-lasting condition, which means that underlying inflammation can still be present, even when you aren’t experiencing flares.3,4 People living with AD normally develop the condition within the first six months of their lives, and some people continue to have AD as an adult too.1

AD is also a systemic condition as the immune processes involved affect the body more broadly, rather than just a specific organ or body part.5,6 This means that the visual signs of AD can appear anywhere on the body.6,7

If we break down the term ‘atopic dermatitis’, it can give us a better idea of what the condition is:

  • Atopic means being sensitive to certain substances called allergens, which leads to an overactive immune response1, 7, 8
  • Dermatitis is a general term used to describe inflammation of the skin.9 As a result, visible signs of AD such as scaly skin or red/brownish patches, may appear.8

What atopic dermatitis isn't

AD isn’t contagious.10
You can’t pass AD on to someone by touching them. However, it can potentially be passed down to your family through genetics.10

AD isn’t a surface-level skin condition.6
Though you’re sometimes able to see and feel AD on your skin, it goes deeper than what’s on the surface.11 It’s a chronic condition that’s caused by genetic, immunological, and environmental factors.6 Even when you aren’t having a flare, underlying inflammation can still be present beneath the skin.6,11 This underlying inflammation can worsen, resulting in a flare-up of AD signs and symptoms.11,12

AD isn’t the same for everyone.
AD appears differently on different people, including between those with different skin tones and ethnicities.13 AD also impacts people in different ways. For some, it may be their sleep that’s the most impacted, whereas for others, it may be their self-esteem that takes the biggest hit.14 You’re the only one who knows the true impact of your AD, so it’s important to share this information with a dermatologist to help get you the support you need in managing your AD for the long-term.

What causes AD?

Atopic dermatitis is caused by a combination of genetic, immunological and environmental factors. By understanding these underlying causes in more detail, you’ll be able to have more informed treatment discussions with a dermatologist.

Watch our film to learn more, and to find a new way to see your AD.

So, is atopic dermatitis a type of eczema?

Yes, it is. Atopic dermatitis, also known as atopic eczema, is actually the most common form of eczema in the world.1,7 That's why it's sometimes referred to as ‘eczema’, a term most people are used to hearing.

As many as 1 in 5 children and 1 in 10 adults worldwide could have AD, making it one of the most common long-term conditions too.6, 11, 15 Which means you aren’t alone.

Discover more
Man with eczema, arms raised and looking upwards trying to understand more about atopic dermatitis

With a better understanding of AD and what causes it, we hope you’ll be able to have more informed conversations with a dermatologist to help you find long-term control.



Lets take an in-depth look at the signs and symptoms of AD. Learn how they appear on adults and children, and on different skin tones.

Find out more


Myth Buster Quiz

When it comes to AD, there's misinformation everywhere. Separate fact from fiction with our Myth Buster Quiz.

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Managing AD

Managing AD

Feeling like you've tried everything to manage your AD? Don't lose hope. We've got the tips, tools and information you need to get closer to control.

Go to Managing AD


  1. National Eczema Association. Atopic Dermatitis. Available at: Accessed July 2021.

  2. AAAAI. Atopy Defined. Available at:,-asthma-immunology-glossary/atopy-defined/. Accessed July 2021.

  3. National Eczema Association. Understanding inflammation’s role in atopic dermatitis. Available at: Accessed August 2021.

  4. National Eczema Association. What is Eczema. Available at: Accessed August 2021.

  5. Merriam-Webster. Systemic. Available at: Accessed August 2021.

  6. Bieber T. Ann Dermatol 2010; 22:125–137.

  7. NHS. Atopic eczema overview. Available at: Accessed July 2021.

  8. AAAAI. Atopic Dermatitis Defined. Available at:,-asthma-immunology-glossary/atopic-dermatitis-defined/. Accessed: July 2021.

  9. Merriam-Webster. Dermatitis. Available at: Accessed August 2021.

  10. NHS. Atopic eczema causes. Available at: Accessed July 2021.

  11. Leung DYM et al. J Clin Invest 2004; 113:651–657.

  12. Gittler JK et al. J Allergy Clin Immunol 2012; 130:1344–1354.

  13. Kaufman BP et al. Exp Dermatol 2018; 27(4):340–357.

  14. Zuberbier T et al. J Allergy Clin Immunol 2006; 118(1):226–232.

  15. Weidinger S et al. Lancet 2016; 387:1109–1122.