Dermatitis is a common condition that causes swelling and irritation of the skin. It has many causes and forms and often involves itchy, dry skin or a rash. Or it might cause the skin to blister, ooze, crust or flake. Three common types of this condition are atopic dermatitis, contact dermatitis and seborrheic dermatitis. Atopic dermatitis is also known as eczema.

Dermatitis isn't contagious, but it can be very uncomfortable. Moisturizing regularly helps control the symptoms. Treatment also may include medicated ointments, creams and shampoos.



Each type of dermatitis tends to occur on a different part of the body. Symptoms may include:

  • Itchiness that can be painful.
  • Dry, cracked, scaly skin, more typical on white skin.
  • Rash on swollen skin that varies in color depending on skin color.
  • Blisters, perhaps with oozing and crusting.
  • Dandruff.
  • Thickened skin.
  • Small, raised bumps, more typical on brown or Black skin.

When to see a doctor

See your doctor if:

  • You're so uncomfortable that the condition is affecting sleep and daily activities.
  • Your skin is painful.
  • You have a skin infection — look for new streaks, pus, yellow scabs.
  • You have symptoms even after trying self-care steps.

Seek immediate medical attention if you have a fever and the rash looks infected.

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Mayo Clinic Minute: Eczema occurs in people of all ages

Jason T. Howland: Atopic dermatitis is a sensitivity disease of the skin, similar to asthma in the lungs, hay fever in the sinuses and food allergies in the gut.

Dawn Marie R. Davis, M.D.: It's a multisystem disorder. Inflammation affects the skin, and the skin is more sensitive than usual.

Howland: It's a chronic condition and tends to flare periodically. The symptoms vary.

Dr. Davis: Atopic dermatitis tends to be red, weepy, crusty, itchy, flaky patches, like oval or circular-shaped areas on the skin.

Our skin is like a brick wall. And over time as we age, or genetically if we are predisposed to sensitive skin, it can look like a wicker basket more than a brick wall.

Howland: Adult eczema often occurs in patches on areas of the body prone to friction or sweat.

Dr. Davis: Where your waistband would sit, where your socks or shoes would rub. If you have a watch, where you would wear your watch. If you have a headband or certain things that you wear along your neck, like a necklace or a tie.

It's important to bathe regularly. It's important to hydrate the skin with a moisturizer that is hypoallergenic. It's important to monitor for infection.

Howland: If those self-care steps don't help, your dermatologist may prescribe topical or oral medications, or other therapies.

For Mayo Clinic News Network, I'm Jason Howland.

Stung by a Plant

Ally Barons: I just have always grown up around water, and I love to swim.

Vivien Williams: But last year, during spring break, lifeguard Ally Barons developed a strange, long, red mark on her leg after a dip in the ocean.

Ally Barons: But then it started to get really red and blistered.

Vivien Williams: She thought maybe it was a jellyfish sting. Mayo Clinic Dr. Dawn Davis told Ally yes, it was a sting, but from a plant and the sun, not a jellyfish.

Ally Barons: So I was kind of disappointed because jellyfish sounds cooler.

Dawn Marie R. Davis, M.D.: There are certain plants and fruits in nature, such as dill, buttercup, bergamot, musk ambrette, parsley, parsnip, and citrus fruits, especially lime, that when these chemicals that they contain hit your skin and then it's exposed to ultraviolet light, a chemical reaction occurs. And you can either develop a dermatitis, which is called phytophotodermatitis, plant-light induced eczema, or you can develop a phototoxic dermatitis, meaning plant sunburn dermatitis.

Vivien Williams: Typical scenarios would be when you brush up against certain plants on a hike or when you squeeze a lime into a drink, maybe you get some juice on your hands, you touch your arm. And when the sun hits that spot, the dermatitis appears in the form of hand prints or drips.

Dawn Marie R. Davis, M.D.: A lot of people think that it's poison ivy with the lines and the streaks. But it's, indeed, not. It's a phytophotodermatitis.

Vivien Williams: Treatment includes topical ointment and staying out of the sun.

Ally Barons: It's right here on my leg.

Vivien Williams: Ally says her reaction was a bit painful, but over time it's fading away. For Medical Edge, I'm Vivien Williams.

A common cause of dermatitis is contact with something that irritates your skin or triggers an allergic reaction. Examples of such things are poison ivy, perfume, lotion and jewelry containing nickel. Other causes of dermatitis include dry skin, a viral infection, bacteria, stress, genetic makeup and a problem with the immune system.

Risk factors

Common risk factors for dermatitis include:

  • Age. Dermatitis can occur at any age, but atopic dermatitis is more common in children than adults. It often begins in infancy.
  • Allergies, atopic dermatitis and asthma. People who have a personal or family history of atopic dermatitis, allergies, hay fever or asthma are more likely to develop atopic dermatitis.
  • Occupation. Jobs that put you in contact with certain metals, solvents or cleaning supplies increase your risk of contact dermatitis. Being a health care worker is linked to hand eczema.
  • Other health conditions. Health conditions that put you at increased risk of seborrheic dermatitis include Parkinson's disease, immunodeficiency and HIV/AIDS.


Repeated scratching that breaks the skin can cause open sores and cracks. These increase the risk of infection from bacteria and fungi. These skin infections can spread and become life-threatening, though this is rare.

In people with brown and Black skin, dermatitis might cause the affected skin to darken or lighten. These conditions are called post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and post-inflammatory hypopigmentation. It might take months or years for the skin to return to its usual color.


Wear protective clothing if you're doing a task that involves irritants or caustic chemicals.

Developing a basic skin care routine also may help prevent dermatitis. The following habits can help reduce the drying effects of bathing:

  • Take shorter baths and showers. Limit your bath or shower to about 10 minutes. Use lukewarm, not hot, water. Bath oil also may be helpful.
  • Use a mild soap or a soapless cleanser. Choose a cleanser that has no dyes, alcohols and fragrance. Some soaps can dry the skin. For young children, you usually need only warm water to get them clean — no soap or bubble bath needed. Don't scrub the skin with a washcloth or loofah.
  • Pat dry. After bathing, gently pat the skin with a soft towel. Avoid aggressive rubbing.
  • Moisturize all the skin. While the skin is still damp, seal in moisture with an oil, cream or lotion. Moisturize throughout the day as needed.

    Many moisturizers are sold. Try different products to find one that works for you. The ideal moisturizer is safe, unscented, effective, affordable and one that you like to use regularly. Examples include Vanicream, Eucerin, CeraVe and Cetaphil.

Sept. 08, 2023
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