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.
- 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.
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.
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.