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What Causes Atopic Dermatitis Reactions

Atopic dermatitis rashes, or eczema as it’s often called, is the result of an “overreaction” of the immune system in the skin to an offending substance. In this article, we will examine:

  • A brief history of where the term “eczema” comes from
  • How to determine if an eczema reaction is due to allergies
  • Background of allergies
  • Allergic triggers of atopic dermatitis

Let’s begin.

Where The Term “Eczema” Comes From

The great majority of adults, babies, and children with eczema have Atopic dermatitis. However, the term “Eczema” can include people who have small blisters that boil out of the skin on their hands and feet with stress, but they do not have Atopic dermatitis. The term eczema was coined in ancient times for itchy rashes that “bubble up” and weep, or become moist and oozy. It was founded from the Greek word “ekzein,'' meaning to “boil and bubble out”.   Most who experience eczema don’t have true allergies that cause it, such as hand eczema and dyshidrotic eczema patients.


what causes atopic dermatitis reactions

How to Determine if An Eczema Reaction is Due to Allergies

To start, it’s important to note the location of the rash. Patients who have chronic dermatitis on the extremities (such as hands or feet) and not on the face or neck, are very unlikely to have actual allergies triggering their itchy rashes. For these situations, the triggers are primarily stress and environmental factors. Of these, most triggers are not true allergies. Mold, yeast, and noxious bacteria on the skin will most often trigger a flare of Atopic dermatitis or Eczema. But these triggers are not the only issues patients must confront. 

The second biggest problem for individuals with Atopic dermatitis is a damaged, open, and unhealed skin barrier allowing in irritants that further trigger itching and redness. This is why moisturizing 2x per day at a minimum is critical to both the recovery and prevention of Eczema rashes. Prescription steroid creams are great at initial control of severe eczema rashes, but for actual recovery, the skin barrier must be repaired as well. 

This is why SmartLotion® is able to help so very many people (over 40k now!) who suffer from eczema. It rapidly starts healing the open, damaged skin barrier, and its Prebiotic qualities help reduce noxious microorganisms that trigger the Eczema reaction. It’s also the most helpful with its ability to heal without side effects, meaning it can be used as a long-term preventative - which is critical for chronic conditions like eczema.

eczema allergic reaction

Background of Allergies

True allergy exists when the body’s immune system has “learned” to consider certain proteins and oils as foreign, and to attack them with manufactured antibodies. Typically these are manufactured as IgE antibodies.  When exposed to the offending substance, these IgE antibodies cause the release of histamine and all kinds of other chemicals that cause itching and swelling.  The allergen, or the offending substance (usually a protein), comes in contact with the immune system through injured open skin, inhalation, or when swallowed.  The gut (oral and sublingual) is turning out to be perhaps the best way to desensitize for true allergies.

Allergic Triggers of Atopic Dermatitis

Here are the other most important triggers for the face and neck that causes Atopic dermatitis, and information about their relationships to “true” allergies:

Cat dander

The proteins in Cat dander are especially triggering for Atopic dermatitis patients and regularly causes atopic dermatitis reactions.  Especially for children and babies.  Children are helpless when it comes to deciding about keeping the cat out of their bedroom, and/or finding the cat a new home.  Cat dander is especially difficult to get out of carpets.  And many allergists and dermatologists recommend that after the cat leaves, the carpets should be completely replaced.  Cat dander is often a true allergy as well as a trigger.  However, some patients whose flares are definitely triggered by cats, test negative for true allergy to cats.  In these patients, we call the Allergy tests “False negatives.”  These patients must be away from the cat for a week, while using good skin care, to learn if the cat is a trigger. It's heart-wrenching when we see a family let their child suffer from cat-triggered Atopic dermatitis and they do nothing to remove the cat from the child’s bedroom or from the home.

Mold on grass

Think of the grass in your lawn as an “ocean of mold.” All grasses are covered with microscopic mold, and when Atopic children play and sit on grass, and roll in grass, the mold is a strong trigger for a flare of Atopic dermatitis.  We tell parents to immediately bathe the child and immediately apply the favorite skin-repairing moisturizer. This will prevent the flare most of the time.  It’s not known how much of a True allergy that the mold trigger is, but people with Atopic dermatitis are very often allergic to molds, producing Allergic rhinitis (runny nose, watery eyes when the grass is cut), by the time they are adults in their 30s. Most adults with Atopic dermatitis test positive for allergy to molds. 

Food allergies  

Food allergy is the most often “suspected or hoped for allergy” as a reason for Atopic dermatitis flares.  Unfortunately, it’s actually the least common, or least likely trigger for Atopic dermatitis.  Only the youngest children have itching sometimes triggered by a food allergy, and itching certainly can trigger Atopic dermatitis.  Parents need to know that rarely is removal of a food absolutely helpful in preventing Atopic dermatitis.  It’s only sometimes, somewhat helpful, in the youngest of children.  The most likely foods to trigger itching are: milk, eggs, soy, wheat, peanuts, tomatoes, strawberries, citrus fruits, fish, and shrimp. A true allergy to any of these foods is usually causing other problems, not Atopic dermatitis, such as hives, vomiting, diarrhea, swelling or anaphylaxis.

Contact allergies  

This refers to a learned allergy that has developed from the skin being exposed to: metal residue from earrings and jewelry, antibiotic medications in ointments like Bacitracin and Neomycin,  fragrances in your products or your spouse’s (note that the fragrance in SmartLotion® is hypoallergenic), and a preservative in shampoos, hair conditioners, and body washes called Methylisothiazolinone (aka Methylchloroisothiazolinone).  When present, allergy to these common “Contact allergens” will prevent therapies for Atopic dermatitis from working.  When Atopic dermatitis patients are struggling in spite of our recommended 2x daily applications of CeraVe® cream or similar high-grade moisturizers, and using SmartLotion® for preventing flares, it’s important for a Dermatologist or an Allergist to test for Allergic Contact Dermatitis.  While waiting for this appointment, avoid fragrances, jewelry, and be sure to read labels to avoid Methylisothiazolinone in products. This is a big one, as this preservative is found in many products, especially shampoos and conditioners.

Dust and dust mites

Dust mites love humidity, lack of washing, and dead skin cells to live on.  Many Atopic dermatitis patients test positive for an allergy to dust mites. Some of them are helped by measures to counteract a dust mite allergy (mattress and pillow covers that are breathable but impermeable to dust mites), and desensitization treatment from their allergist.  For many Atopic dermatitis patients, dust mite measures make no difference.  Most often, dust mites are less of a factor than all the other factors mentioned above. The most extensively red and erythrodermic patients with Atopic dermatitis are more likely to be helped by measures to minimize dust mite allergy.


As you can see, people often worry about what causes atopic dermatitis reactions but depending on where the atopic dermatitis is, it could be down to stress and environmental factors rather than typical allergic triggers.

You can find more information regarding eczema and atopic dermatitis on our blog and knowledgebase. If you're sick and tired of waiting for flare ups to cover your skin, consider giving SmartLotion® a try as a preventative. If you're not sure, check out the reviews on our homepage. 



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