Diagnosis

Your doctor may diagnose dermatitis after talking to you about your signs and symptoms and examining your skin. He or she may also suggest doing a skin biopsy or other tests to help rule out other skin conditions.

Patch testing

If your doctor thinks you have contact dermatitis, he or she might conduct patch testing on your skin. In this test, small amounts of various substances are applied to your skin under an adhesive covering.

During return visits over the next several days, your doctor examines your skin to see if you've had a reaction to any of the substances. This type of testing is best done at least two weeks after your dermatitis has cleared up. It's most useful for determining if you have specific contact allergies.

Treatment

The treatment for dermatitis varies, depending on the cause and each person's experience of the condition. In addition to the lifestyle and home remedies recommendations below, most dermatitis treatment plans include one or more of the following:

  • Applying corticosteroid creams
  • Applying certain creams or lotions that affect your immune system (calcineurin inhibitors)
  • Exposing the affected area to controlled amounts of natural or artificial light (phototherapy)

Lifestyle and home remedies

These steps can help you manage dermatitis:

  • Use nonprescription anti-inflammation and anti-itch products. Over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion can temporarily relieve inflammation and itching. Oral antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl, others), may be helpful if itching is severe. Diphenhydramine may cause drowsiness and slowing of the urinary stream.
  • Apply cool, wet compresses. This helps soothe your skin.
  • Take a comfortably warm bath. Sprinkle your bath water with uncooked oatmeal or colloidal oatmeal — a finely ground oatmeal that's made for the bathtub. Soak for 5 to 10 minutes, pat dry and apply moisturizer.
  • Take a bleach bath. This may help people with severe atopic dermatitis by decreasing the bacteria on the skin. Add 1/2 cup (about 118 milliliters) of household bleach, not concentrated bleach, to a 40-gallon (about 151-liter) bathtub filled with warm water. Measures are for a U.S. standard-sized tub filled to the overflow drainage holes.
  • Avoid rubbing and scratching. Cover the itchy area with a dressing if you can't keep from scratching it. Trim nails and wear gloves at night.
  • Wear cotton clothing. Smooth-textured cotton clothing can help you avoid irritating the affected area.
  • Choose mild laundry detergent. Because your clothes, sheets and towels touch your skin, choose mild, unscented laundry products.
  • Moisturize your skin. Routinely using moisturizers can reduce the severity of atopic dermatitis. For mild forms of the condition, moisturizer may be the main form of treatment.
  • Avoid irritants. For contact dermatitis especially, try to minimize contact with the substance that caused your rash.
  • Use stress management techniques. Emotional stressors can cause some types of dermatitis to flare up. Techniques such as relaxation or biofeedback may help.

Alternative medicine

Many alternative therapies, including those listed below, have helped some people manage their dermatitis. But evidence for their effectiveness isn't conclusive.

  • Dietary supplements, such as vitamin D and probiotics, for atopic dermatitis
  • Rice bran broth (applied to the skin) for atopic dermatitis
  • Tea tree oil, either alone or added to your shampoo, for seborrheic dermatitis
  • Fish oil supplements for seborrheic dermatitis
  • Aloe vera for seborrheic dermatitis

If you're considering dietary supplements or other alternative therapies, talk with your doctor about their pros and cons.

Preparing for your appointment

You'll probably first bring your concerns to the attention of your family doctor. He or she might refer you to a doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of skin conditions (dermatologist).

Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment and know what to expect from your doctor.

What you can do

Before your appointment, list your answers to the following questions:

  • What are your symptoms, and when did they start?
  • Does anything seem to trigger your symptoms?
  • What medications are you taking, including those you take by mouth as well as creams or ointments that you apply to your skin?
  • Do you have a family history of allergies or asthma?
  • What treatments have you tried so far? Has anything helped?

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may reserve time to go over any points you want to talk about in depth. Depending on what type of dermatitis you have, your doctor may ask:

  • Do your symptoms come and go, or are they fairly constant?
  • How often do you shower or bathe?
  • What products do you use on your skin, including soaps, lotions and cosmetics?
  • What household cleaning products do you use?
  • Are you exposed to any possible irritants from your job or hobbies?
  • Have you been under any unusual stress or depressed lately?
  • How much do your symptoms affect your quality of life, including your ability to sleep?