Atopic Dermatitis: Diagnosis and Treatment

Am Fam Physician. 2020 May 15;101(10):590-598.


Atopic dermatitis (atopic eczema) is a chronic relapsing and remitting inflammatory skin disease affecting one in 10 people in their lifetime. Atopic dermatitis is caused by a complex interaction of immune dysregulation, epidermal gene mutations, and environmental factors that disrupts the epidermis causing intensely pruritic skin lesions. Repeated scratching triggers a self-perpetuating itch-scratch cycle, which can have a significant impact on the patient's quality of life. The American Academy of Dermatology has created simple diagnostic criteria based on symptoms and physical examination findings. Maintenance therapy consists of liberal use of emollients and daily bathing with soap-free cleansers. Use of topical corticosteroids is the first-line treatment for atopic dermatitis flare-ups. Pimecrolimus and tacrolimus are topical calcineurin inhibitors that can be used in conjunction with topical corticosteroids as first-line treatment. Ultraviolet phototherapy is a safe and effective treatment for moderate to severe atopic dermatitis when first-line treatments are not adequate. Antistaphylococcal antibiotics are effective in treating secondary skin infections. Oral antihistamines are not recommended because they do not reduce pruritus. Evidence is lacking to support the use of integrative medicine in the treatment of atopic dermatitis. Newer medications approved by the U.S Food and Drug Administration, such as crisaborole and dupilumab, are effective in treating atopic dermatitis but are currently cost prohibitive for most patients.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Topical
  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones / administration & dosage
  • Baths / methods
  • Calcineurin Inhibitors / administration & dosage
  • Dermatitis, Atopic / complications
  • Dermatitis, Atopic / diagnosis*
  • Dermatitis, Atopic / therapy*
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Emollients / administration & dosage
  • Humans
  • Phototherapy / methods
  • Pruritus / etiology
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Skin Diseases, Infectious / drug therapy
  • Skin Diseases, Infectious / etiology


  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones
  • Calcineurin Inhibitors
  • Emollients