Dermatitis is a general term for skin inflammation. With dermatitis, your skin will typically look dry, swollen, and discolored. The causes of dermatitis vary between types. However, it’s not contagious.
Contact your doctor for an appointment if your skin is infected, painful, or uncomfortable, or if your dermatitis is widespread or isn’t getting better.
Types of dermatitis
There are several different types of dermatitis. Some can last a long time, while others may cycle between flare-ups and periods of no symptoms. Some types of dermatitis are more common in children, and others are more common in adults.
People commonly refer to this as eczema. Atopic dermatitis can run in families and usually develops during infancy. However, it can also develop in adulthood.
There is no cure for atopic dermatitis. People with the condition will typically experience symptoms in cycles of flare-ups, and periods of little to no symptoms. During flare-ups, patches of skin may appear rough, dry, and itchy.
Contact dermatitis happens when a substance touches your skin and causes an adverse reaction. These reactions can develop into rashes that burn, sting, itch, or blister.
Contact dermatitis may be the result of an allergic or an irritant reaction. In irritant contact dermatitis an outside substance directly damages the skin and causes a reaction.
Meanwhile, in allergic contact dermatitis, the outside substance may not directly damage the skin but will cause your immune system to react in a way that does so.
In dyshidrotic dermatitis, the skin cannot protect itself. This results in itchy, dry skin, often accompanied by small blisters. It occurs mainly on the feet and hands, and may also occur in people who perspire heavily in these areas.
People may refer to seborrheic dermatitis as cradle cap when it occurs in infants. This type of dermatitis is most common on the scalp, though it can also occur on the face, chest, and around the ears.
It often causes scaly patches, skin discoloration, and dandruff. Stress or lack of sleep can worsen these symptoms.
There is no cure for seborrheic dermatitis, but you can treat it effectively.
Some other types of dermatitis include:
- Neurodermatitis. This type involves an itchy patch of skin, often triggered by stress or something irritating the skin.
- Nummular dermatitis.Nummular dermatitis involves oval sores on the skin, often occurring after a skin injury. Nummular means “coin-like.”
- Stasis dermatitis.This type involves skin changes due to poor blood circulation. It can cause skin discoloration in the lower extremities and may even cause the skin to thicken in texture.
- Dermatitis neglecta. Dermatitis neglecta results from the accumulation of sebum, sweat, corneocytes, and bacteria in a localized area of skin, forming a compact and adherent crust of dirt.
Symptoms of dermatitis
The symptoms of dermatitis range from mild to severe and will look different depending on what part of the body is affected. Symptoms will vary on the type of dermatitis causing them, although they can often be difficult to distinguish.
In general, the symptoms of dermatitis may include:
Dermatitis also causes skin discoloration. However, this will appear differently on different skin tones.
On darker skin, dermatitis rashes will typically appear gray, purple, or a shade darker than your normal skin tone. On lighter skin, dermatitis patches will typically appear pink or red.
Causes of dermatitis
The causes of dermatitis vary depending on the type. However, environmental triggers can often be the reason for specific flare-ups.
The trigger is what causes your skin to have a reaction. It could be a substance, your environment, or something happening in your body.
Common triggers that cause dermatitis to flare include:
- hormonal changes
- the environment
- irritating substances
Contact dermatitis occurs when you come in direct contact with an irritant or allergen. Common materials that cause allergic reactions include:
Atopic dermatitis is often the result of a combination of factors like dry skin, environmental setting, and bacteria on the skin.
Triggers of atopic dermatitis vary between people, but stress, irritants, and hormonal changes are common factors. Other factors that can trigger atopic dermatitis include an increased intake of sugar, dairy, and red meat in some cases.
A family history of atopic dermatitis can also increase your chance of developing the condition.
The exact cause of seborrheic dermatitis is unknown. However, it may be the result of an inflammatory reaction to Malassezia yeast, a naturally occurring organism on the skin.
Certain conditions can increase your risk of seborrheic dermatitis. These include:
- Parkinson’s disease
Seborrheic dermatitis can first occur during puberty for many people and can be worse during this time.
Stasis dermatitis occurs due to poor circulation in the body.
Typically, small valves in your blood veins will weaken, reducing your blood flow back to the heart, and causing fluid to build up in your extremities. This fluid then causes swelling around the affected area. Stasis dermatitis then occurs in these areas of swollen skin.
Because poor blood flow is most common in the lower legs, this is the most common site of stasis dermatitis. However, it can occur anywhere.
At-home and medical treatment options
Treatments for dermatitis depend on the type, severity of symptoms, and cause. Many types of dermatitis will clear up on their own. For example, contact dermatitis will often improve once you are no longer in contact with known irritants.
However, if your dermatitis doesn’t improve naturally, your doctor or dermatologist may recommend:
- medications to reduce allergies and itching, like an antihistamine such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
- phototherapy, or exposing affected areas to controlled amounts of light
- topical creams with a steroid, like hydrocortisone, to relieve itchiness and inflammation
- creams or lotions for dry skin
- oatmeal baths to relieve itching
Doctors will typically recommend antibiotics or antifungal medications 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 to help reduce itching and discomfort. You can try adding baking soda to a cool bath to help reduce symptoms. If your skin is broken, you can cover the wound with a dressing or bandage to prevent irritation or infection.
Dermatitis can sometimes flare up when you’re stressed. Alternative therapies may be helpful in reducing stress. Examples include:
Dietary changes, like avoiding foods that trigger a reaction, may help you manage eczema symptoms. In some cases, dietary supplements like vitamin D and probiotics can help as well, but talk with your doctor first if your considering making changes to your treatment plan.
Risk factors for dermatitis
Factors that increase your chances of getting dermatitis include:
- the environment
- family history
- health conditions
Some factors increase your risk of certain types of dermatitis more than others. For example, frequent washing and drying of hands may increase your chances of developing contact dermatitis.
Your doctor will perform a physical exam and discuss your medical history before making a diagnosis. In some cases, a dermatologist can diagnose the type of dermatitis just by looking at the skin.
In a skin patch test, your doctor will put small amounts of different substances on your skin. After a few days, they’ll check for reactions and determine whether you might be allergic to certain substances.
In some cases, your dermatologist may perform a skin biopsy to help figure out the cause. A skin biopsy involves your doctor removing a small sample of the affected skin and looking at it under a microscope.
Other tests can be done on the skin sample to help determine the cause of your dermatitis.
Dermatitis prevention methods
Awareness is the first step in avoiding dermatitis. The only way to prevent an allergic reaction is to avoid contact with allergens or substances that cause rashes.
But if you have eczema — which is not always preventable — flare-up prevention is important.
To prevent flare-ups:
- Try to avoid scratching the affected area. Scratching can open or reopen wounds and spread the bacteria to other parts of your body.
- To help prevent dry skin, consider taking shorter baths, using mild soaps, and bathing in warm water instead of hot. Most people also find relief by moisturizing frequently (especially after a shower).
- Use water-based moisturizers after washing hands and oil-based moisturizers for extremely dry skin.
While dermatitis isn’t often serious, scratching hard or too frequently can lead to open sores and infections. Though this can cause infections to spread, they rarely become life threatening.
Treatment can help prevent or manage potential flare-ups. It might take some time to figure out the right treatment or combination of treatments, but it can be done.