What Treatment Options Are There For Atopic Dermatitis?

Atopic dermatitis (AD) is the most common form of eczema and most often occurs in infancy or childhood. While many people with AD experience remission, the chronic condition can last into adulthood, and in rare cases, it can begin in adulthood.1,2

What happens when someone has eczema?

Atopic dermatitis can be a frustrating condition for both the patient and their parents, as the symptoms, including an intense itching, redness, oozing, and scaling, can flare-up and recur again and again. AD causes damage to the skin barrier, and this damage interferes with the skin barrier’s normal functions of protecting the body against germs and keeping needed water in. There is also a dysfunction in the immune system in people with AD, which leads to increased inflammation on areas of skin affected by AD.1

What are the goals of treatment?

Treatment goals involve relieving symptoms of AD, reducing the inflammatory response, repairing and maintaining a healthy skin barrier, controlling itch, and managing infectious triggers.1

Routine skin care in addition to medication

Treatment for AD usually involves therapies that are targeted and applied to the skin directly. In addition to medications, a critical part of treating and preventing relapses of AD is good routine skincare. Routine skin care involves bathing and moisturizing the skin, as well as avoiding skin irritants and scratching. Daily bathing or showering can help hydrate the skin as well as remove any bacteria or other microorganisms that can cause infection.

People with AD are at a greater risk of infection due to the damage to the skin barrier and scratching, which can further break the skin and introduce microorganisms. The regular use of moisturizers is one of the most important aspects of caring for skin with AD. Moisturizers are one of the basic necessities for people with AD, regardless of the severity of their disease, and should be applied after bathing to seal in moisture.3,4

Medication options

In addition to routine skincare, there are several medications for AD, including:

Topical corticosteroids

Corticosteroids are available in a range of potency, with more potent medications being available only by prescription and milder formulations available for purchase over-the-counter. Corticosteroids decrease inflammation, reduce itching, and reduce the activity of the immune system.5

Topical calcineurin inhibitors

Topical calcineurin inhibitors block cytokines (chemical messengers) that trigger the inflammatory response.6

Topical phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors (PDE4)

Topical phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors increase the levels of a chemical messenger called cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP). This chemical suppresses the immune response.7,8


Immunosupressants are a systemic treatment that suppresses or interferes with the immune system response and may indirectly improve the function of the skin barrier and reduce the symptoms of AD, including itching, redness, and rash. Several different immunosuppressants may be used in the treatment of AD.9,10


Biologic agents are medications that are targeted to treat diseases at the immune level. When used for atopic dermatitis, biological agents target cells in your body that cause inflammatory reactions by blocking specific proteins in your system called cytokines.11


Antihistamines block the release of histamines, a chemical that is released by the body’s immune system as part of an allergic reaction in response to an antigen. Histamine's primary function is to increase blood flow and nerve activity, which causes redness, rash, and itching. However, antihistamines have been found to have little effect in treating AD.6


Since people with AD are at a higher risk of infections, antibiotics (topical or systemic) may be prescribed to treat bacterial infections.6


Phototherapy, or light therapy is the use of ultraviolet light waves as a treatment.9

Complementary and alternative treatments

Additional treatment options can include complementary and alternative options. These may include natural remedies, dietary supplements, yoga, deep breathing exercises, acupressure, and massage. When used as an alternative or complement to other medications, these treatments may help with symptom relief and improving quality of life.

Clinical trials as a treatment option

Clinical trial participation may allow patients to access potential new treatments before they are available to the public. Criteria for participation is based on the disease or previous treatments, as well as the individual's age, gender, and any other medical conditions.12

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Written by Emily Downward | Reviewed June 2021