Dermatitis is a general term that describes a skin irritation. Dermatitis is a common condition that has many causes and occurs in many forms. It usually involves itchy, dry skin or a rash on swollen, reddened skin. Or it may cause the skin to blister, ooze, crust or flake off. Examples of this condition are atopic dermatitis (eczema), dandruff and contact dermatitis.
Dermatitis isn't contagious, but it can make you feel uncomfortable and self-conscious. Moisturizing regularly helps control the symptoms. Treatment may also include medicated ointments, creams and shampoos.
Dermatitis care at Mayo Clinic
Each type of dermatitis may look a little different and tends to occur on different parts of your body. Signs and symptoms of different types of dermatitis include:
- Atopic dermatitis (eczema). Usually beginning in infancy, this red, itchy rash usually occurs where the skin flexes — inside the elbows, behind the knees and in front of the neck. The rash may leak fluid when scratched and crust over. People with atopic dermatitis may experience improvement and then seasonal flare-ups.
- Contact dermatitis. This red, itchy stinging rash occurs where your skin has come into contact with substances that irritate the skin or cause an allergic reaction. You may develop blisters.
- Seborrheic dermatitis. This condition causes scaly patches, red skin and stubborn dandruff. It usually affects oily areas of the body, such as the face, upper chest and back. Seborrheic dermatitis can be a long-term condition with periods of improvement and then seasonal flare-ups. In infants, this condition is called cradle cap.
- Follicular eczema. With this type, the affected skin thickens and develops bumps in hair follicles. This condition is common in African Americans and in people with dark-brown skin.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if:
- You're so uncomfortable that you are losing sleep or are distracted from your daily routines
- Your skin becomes painful
- You suspect your skin is infected
- You've tried self-care steps but your signs and symptoms persist
Causes of the most common types of dermatitis include:
- Atopic dermatitis (eczema). This type is likely related to dry skin, a gene variation, an immune system dysfunction, a skin infection, exposure to food, airborne, or contact allergens, or a combination of these.
- Contact dermatitis. This type results from contact with something that irritates your skin or causes an allergic reaction. Irritants or allergens include poison ivy, perfumes, jewelry containing nickel, cleaning products, and the preservatives in many creams and lotions.
- Seborrheic dermatitis. This type is caused by a yeast (fungus) that is in the oil secretion on the skin.
Common risk factors for dermatitis include:
- Age. Dermatitis can occur at any age, but atopic dermatitis (eczema) usually begins in infancy.
- Allergies and asthma. People who have a personal or family history of eczema, 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.
- Health conditions. Health conditions that put you at increased risk of seborrheic dermatitis include congestive heart failure, Parkinson's disease and HIV/AIDS.
Scratching the itchy rash associated with dermatitis can cause open sores, which may become infected. These skin infections can spread and may very rarely become life-threatening.
Wear protective clothing if you are doing a task that involves irritants or caustic chemicals.
Avoid dry skin by adopting these habits when bathing:
- Take shorter baths and showers. Limit your baths and showers to 5 to 10 minutes. Use warm, rather than hot, water. Bath oil also may be helpful.
- Use a gentle, nonsoap cleanser. Choose unscented nonsoap cleansers. Some soaps can dry your skin.
- Dry yourself gently. After bathing, gently pat your skin dry with a soft towel.
- Moisturize your skin. While your skin is still damp, seal in moisture with an oil, cream or lotion. Try different products to find one that works for you. Ideally, the best one for you will be safe, effective, affordable and unscented. Two small studies showed that applying a protective moisturizer to the skin of infants at high risk of atopic dermatitis reduced the incidence of the condition by up to 50 percent.