Clinical Review

Atopic Dermatitis Prevention and Treatment

Author and Disclosure Information

Atopic dermatitis (AD) is the cause of substantial morbidity including severe pruritus and impaired personal and familial quality of life. Furthermore, the rising incidence and familial association of AD have highlighted the need for disease prevention. It is largely genetic in nature and cannot be avoided in all cases. However, low-risk prevention strategies have been attempted to reduce triggering of first onset of AD in predisposed individuals. Therapeutics for active disease include trigger avoidance, barrier repair, topical medicaments including topical corticosteroids (TCs) and nonsteroidal agents, phototherapy, and antibacterial interventions.

Practice Points

  • Prevention of atopic dermatitis is desired in high-risk settings (ie, 1 or more relatives with atopy).
  • Emollient therapy from early infancy has been described as one method.
  • Other forms of disease prevention have not yet been adequately developed.



Atopic dermatitis (AD) is a disease that finally is coming of age in dermatology research. New topical agents and systemic biologic agents offer patients with AD other options for medical management. This article provides a practical review of prevention strategies and treatment guidelines for AD.


Prevention strategies for AD have been largely unsuccessful in the past, which may relate to factors such as prenatal triggers.1 However, some newer interventional studies have shown some promise in AD prevention in specific settings. For example, a randomized trial of infants in the United States and United Kingdom at high risk for AD (ie, family history of atopy) reported that the AD risk was reduced by 50% when patients were treated with at least once-daily application of full-body emollients for 6 months (beginning by 3 weeks of life).2 The strategy of daily application of emollients for avoidance of AD in infants with a family history of AD is reasonable but may not offer lifetime prevention, and the benefit in children not from AD families is unknown.

Other trials to prevent AD have included usage of dust avoidance and dust covers for mattresses. This strategy showed modest benefit in reducing the incidence of atopic diatheses in the first year3 but did not gain endorsement by the most recent guidelines of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).4

Prenatal and postnatal (maternal and child) supplementation of Lactobacillus rhamnosus has shown promise in prevention.5 The exact regimen likely makes an impact on efficacy. An early study showed the usage of probiotics (eg, Lactobacillus reuteri) prenatally in pregnant women and postnatally in infants resulted in no reduction in occurrence of AD and possible reduction in IgE-associated AD.6 Kalliomäki et al7 demonstrated that L rhamnosus GG alone reduced AD by half in at-risk infants in a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. On the other hand, Taylor et al8 performed a study of probiotic supplementation in which patients at high risk for AD developed higher rates of allergen sensitization. The most successful recent trial involved the randomization of 415 pregnant women to receive interventions from 36 weeks’ gestation until 3 months postpartum.9 The intervention was a randomized comparison of milk without probiotics versus a blend of probiotic milk containing L rhamnosus GG, Lactobacillus acidophilus La-5, and Bifidobacterium animalis subsp lactis Bb-12. At 6 years of age, 81 babies who consumed probiotic milk and 82 babies who consumed milk without probiotics were available for testing. The strategy caused a statistically significant reduction in AD in the complete case analysis (odds ratio, 0.48; 95% confidence interval, 0.25-0.92; P=.027; number needed to treat, 6). Sadly, other allergic diseases were not prevented in this study.9


There currently is no cure or perfected prevention technique for AD. As a result, therapy focuses on avoiding triggers and alleviating symptoms.10 Recent guidelines from the AAD state that“[t]he ultimate judgment regarding the propriety of any specific therapy must be made by the physician and the patient in light of all the circumstances presented by the individual patient, and the known variability and biologic behavior of the disease.”11 Skin-directed therapies are the first line of treatment including emollients, gentle skin care, and topical medicaments. In AD, therapies are needed to reduce disease activity and flare severity, clear flares, and provide relief.

Parental education and written eczema action plans are recommended to help patients and parents/guardians follow recommended regimens12; Tollefson and Bruckner13 for the American Academy of Pediatrics provide an action plan to guide the care of children with atopic dermatitis that is simple, but many others exist online. The eczema action plan usually provides information on how to bathe and what to do when the skin is actively inflamed.

In 2014, a 4-part series of guidelines of care for the management of AD was published by the AAD, replacing prior guidelines.4,11,14,15 The following sections review some of the important parameters of care highlighted in these management guidelines.

Psychological Support

Appropriate psychological support for AD patients can be sought through counselors, therapists, psychiatrists, and support groups such as the National Eczema Association (


Education is the leading form of medical therapy in patients with AD. Eczema schools are popular in Europe and are just beginning to form in the United States (, which can be helpful to educate caregivers and patients with AD. Patient resources online and through support groups with an online presence, in-person meetings, and patient/family conventions can be helpful to AD patients. Often, an initial office visit with a dermatologist involves a review of avoidance of triggers, usage of gentle skin care including bland emollients, and therapeutic regimens for disease activity. This form of verbal education is to be paired with an eczema action plan, a written document that allows individuals to reference recommendations and share information with other caregivers.12,13,16

Emollients and Gentle Skin Care

Gentle skin care regimens, which includes the usage of synthetic cleansers with a low pH to help maintain the acidity (acid mantle) of the skin, seek to reduce irritation and have been rated as level IA (highest level) in recent AAD guidelines.14 Although bathing frequency has been emphasized in the guidelines, AD severity as reflected by SCORAD (SCORing Atopic Dermatitis) was not different for daily bathing versus twice weekly.17 The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended a skin care regimen of bathing every 2 to 3 days in lukewarm water for 10 to 15 minutes, followed by application of emollients that are fragrance free and have few preservatives.13 Topical emollients with additives such as colloidal oatmeal, avenanthramides, or ceramides can be used to enhance the skin barrier and are well tolerated in all age groups.18,19 Despite enhanced emollients, the therapy of AD still requires usage of prescription or over-the-counter TCs and/or topical calcineurin inhibitors (TCIs) in many cases.20


Next Article:

Photosensitive Atopic Dermatitis Exacerbated by UVB Exposure

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