Eczema is a type of dermatitis, and these terms are often used synonymously (e.g., atopic eczema or atopic dermatitis [AD]). Eczema is a reaction pattern that presents with variable clinical findings and the common histologic finding of spongiosis (intercellular edema of the epidermis). Eczema is the final common expression for a number of disorders, including those discussed in the following sections. Primary lesions may include erythematous macules, papules, and vesicles, which can coalesce to form patches and plaques. In severe eczema, secondary lesions from infection or excoriation, marked by weeping and crusting, may predominate. In chronic eczematous conditions, lichenification (cutaneous hypertrophy and accentuation of normal skin markings) may alter the characteristic appearance of eczema.
AD is the cutaneous expression of the atopic state, characterized by a family history of asthma, allergic rhinitis, or eczema. The prevalence of AD is increasing worldwide. Some of its features are shown in Table 71-1.
The etiology of AD is only partially defined, but there is a clear genetic predisposition. When both parents are affected by AD, >80% of their children manifest the disease. When only one parent is affected, the prevalence drops to slightly over 50%. A characteristic defect in AD that contributes to the pathophysiology is an impaired epidermal barrier. In many patients, a mutation in the gene encoding filaggrin, a structural protein in the stratum corneum, is responsible. Patients with AD may display a variety of immunoregulatory abnormalities, including increased IgE synthesis; increased serum IgE levels; and impaired, delayed-type hypersensitivity reactions.
The clinical presentation often varies with age. Half of patients with AD present within the first year of life, and 80% present by 5 years of age. About 80% ultimately coexpress allergic rhinitis or asthma. The infantile pattern is characterized by weeping inflammatory patches and crusted plaques on the face, neck, and extensor surfaces. The childhood and adolescent pattern is typified by dermatitis of flexural skin, particularly in the antecubital and popliteal fossae (Fig. 71-1). AD may resolve spontaneously, but approximately 40% of all individuals affected as children will have dermatitis in adult life. The distribution of lesions in adults may be similar to those seen in childhood; however, adults frequently have localized disease manifesting as lichen simplex chronicus or hand eczema (see below). In patients with localized disease, AD may be suspected because of a typical personal or family history or the presence of cutaneous stigmata of AD such as perioral pallor, an extra fold of skin beneath the lower eyelid (Dennie-Morgan folds), increased palmar skin markings, and an increased incidence of cutaneous infections, particularly with Staphylococcus aureus. Regardless of other manifestations, pruritus is a prominent characteristic of AD in all age groups and is exacerbated by dry skin. Many of the cutaneous findings in affected patients, such as lichenification, are secondary to rubbing and scratching.