How Are Asthma and Atopic Dermatitis (Eczema) Related?

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Young Caucasian woman scratching redness on arm from eczema or atopic dermatitis

Some people are more prone to skin rashes and other skin problems than others. Maybe you have noticed this in yourself or your child. Eczema—or atopic dermatitis—is one of those skin conditions. People who develop atopic dermatitis tend to come from families with allergies and allergy related conditions, such as asthma. Here is a look at how asthma and eczema are related.

Atopy is the root of the problem.

According to the AAAAI (American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology), atopy is the genetic tendency to develop allergic diseases. People who are atopic have an overactive immune response to allergens. This commonly includes inhaled allergens and food allergens.

Atopic dermatitis is an example of this kind of an allergic disease. It causes an itchy, red, scaly skin rash, usually in patches. In most cases, it starts at a very young age, typically before age 5. However, it is possible for adults and teens to develop atopic dermatitis. Because it is an atopic disease, it is not contagious. But it does run in families.

Atopic dermatitis is part of a group of atopic conditions that doctors call the “atopic march.” Other diseases in the atopic march include food allergies, hay fever (seasonal allergies), and asthma.

Asthma is usually an allergic disease.

In general, asthma refers to over-reactive airway disease. Airways in the lungs are overly sensitive to irritants. In the United States, allergic asthma is the most common form of the disease. This means the irritants that trigger airway inflammation and narrowing are allergens. This includes animal dander, dust mites, mold spores, pollen, and household pests, such as cockroaches. When people with allergic asthma breathe in these allergens or allergen particles, it causes an asthma attack. They experience chest tightness, shortness of breath, and wheezing.

One of the risk factors for allergic asthma is having a parent or sibling with allergies or allergic asthma. This makes allergic asthma an atopic disease.

Having atopic dermatitis increases the risk of other atopic diseases.

There is debate about whether the atopic march always occurs in order—atopic dermatitis, food allergies, hay fever, and then asthma. However, there is widespread agreement among experts that having one of these atopic conditions increases the likelihood of developing another one.

People with severe atopic dermatitis are especially at risk of getting another atopic disease. The AAD (American Academy of Dermatology) defines severe atopic dermatitis as covering a large area of the body or being very troublesome. When it is severe, about 66% of people with atopic dermatitis will also get hay fever. And 50% will go on to develop asthma.

Caring for your skin can be an important defense in the battle with allergies.

One expert calls the atopic dermatitis-allergy connection a chicken-or-the-egg debate. Does a faulty skin barrier lead to allergies? Or do allergies lead to a faulty skin barrier? Either way, taking care of your skin keeps a healthy protective barrier between you and the environment. Research has shown that people with atopic dermatitis who practice good skin care have fewer allergy concerns.

Along with prescription eczema treatment for atopic dermatitis, you can care for your skin with the following strategies:

  • Bathe or shower with warm, not hot, water and limit the time to 5 to 10 minutes.

  • Use a mild, fragrance-free skin cleanser and pat your skin dry instead of rubbing it.

  • Apply any medicines while the skin is still damp.

  • Use a thick cream or ointment to moisturize the skin at least twice a day.

The National Eczema Association has a list of products that carry their seal of approval. You can browse skin care products, hair products, sunscreens, and household products, such as detergents, for people with atopic dermatitis and other skin conditions. It may take some trial and error to find the products that are best for your skin. Talk with your doctor if you have trouble finding the right one.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 2
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