Dermatitis is a condition that causes inflammation of the skin. The condition is not contagious and can have many causes. Dermatitis is not considered dangerous, but it can be uncomfortable. Certain types of dermatitis are chronic—for example, atopic dermatitis. But treatments may help.
There are several types of dermatitis. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the two most common types are contact dermatitis and atopic dermatitis.
Contact dermatitis develops when the skin comes in direct contact with an allergen. This causes an allergic reaction. Common irritants include poison oak, poison ivy, detergent, perfume, cosmetics, and nickel.
Atopic dermatitis is also called eczema. It can be chronic and may first start in infancy. It tends to run in families with a history of allergies (Cleveland Clinic).
Some additional forms of dermatitis are dyshidrotic dermatitis and seborrheic dermatitis. Dyshidrotic dermatitis is found only on the feet and hands. Seborrheic dermatitis is usually found on the scalp and face and is related to oily skin (American Academy of Dermatology).
The cause of dermatitis varies depending on the type.
Contact dermatitis is caused by an allergic reaction. Why some individuals develop certain allergies is not known.
The cause of atopic dermatitis is not clear, but it does appear to have a genetic factor. People with atopic dermatitis often have a family history of allergies or asthma. The main cause of seborrheic dermatitis is oily skin and hair. This type of dermatitis also appears to run in families.
Having a family history of dermatitis appears to increase a person’s risk of dermatitis. Having a family history of asthma or hay fever also increases the risk of atopic dermatitis. People who work with or near strong chemical substances, which may irritate the skin, are also at an increased risk of developing dermatitis.
Symptoms of dermatitis range from mild to severe. Not all people with dermatitis experience all symptoms. Symptoms may also depend on what type of dermatitis is present and where it is on the body. In general, symptoms of dermatitis may include a red rash, blisters, and dry, cracked skin. Itchy skin is also common and can become severe. The skin may become painful, with stinging or burning.
A diagnosis is made after a physical exam and a discussion of the patient’s medical history. A dermatologist can often diagnose dermatitis just by looking at the skin. In some cases, a skin patch test is recommended. In a skin patch, a doctor puts small amounts of different substances on the skin. This helps determine what is causing the reaction.
Treatments for dermatitis depend on the severity of symptoms and the cause. Medication is often the main treatment. Topical creams containing hydrocortisone can reduce inflammation, redness, and itching.
Antihistamines are sometimes recommended in order to reduce allergic reactions, which can cause dermatitis. Antibiotics are usually given only if an infection has developed. Infections can occur when the skin is broken due to intense scratching.
Home care for dermatitis may include applying cool, wet cloths to the skin. This can reduce itching and discomfort. Adding baking soda to a cool bath may also help reduce symptoms. Covering the skin with a dressing or bandage prevents scratching or infection if the skin is broken.
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, dermatitis is sometimes associated with an increase in stress. Alternative therapies may help reduce stress. These include acupuncture, massage, and medications.
Other alternative therapies, such as herbs and dietary supplements, may be used to treat dermatitis (University of Maryland Medical Center). Some studies indicate that children under the age of 13 may reduce eczema by taking probiotics (Mayo Clinic).
Dermatitis is not considered a serious medical condition. The frequency and severity of symptoms are usually reduced with treatment. It is possible to learn methods that prevent or control flare-ups.
Dermatitis often runs in families, so it is not always preventable. But it is possible to prevent symptom flare-ups.
People with allergies should avoid skin contact with allergens. Frequently moisturizing the skin can also help.
Avoid excess drying of the skin by reducing bath time to 15 minutes or less, and use warm water instead of hot water. Use mild soaps and detergents, which are less likely to irritate the skin.
Written by: MaryAnn DePietro
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA