Overview

Dermatitis is a general term that describes a common skin irritation. It has many causes and forms and usually involves itchy, dry skin or a rash. Or it might cause the skin to blister, ooze, crust or flake off. Three common types of this condition are atopic dermatitis (eczema), seborrheic dermatitis 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.

Symptoms

Each type of dermatitis tends to occur on a different part of your body. Signs and symptoms may include:

  • Itchiness (pruritus)
  • Dry skin
  • Rash on swollen skin that varies in color depending on your skin color
  • Blisters, perhaps with oozing and crusting
  • Flaking skin (dandruff)
  • Thickened skin
  • Bumps in hair follicles

When to see a doctor

See your doctor if:

  • You're so uncomfortable that you're losing sleep or are distracted from your daily routines
  • Your skin becomes painful
  • You suspect that your skin is infected
  • You've tried self-care steps but your signs and symptoms persist

Causes

A common cause of dermatitis is contact with something that irritates your skin or triggers an allergic reaction — for example, 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 (eczema) is more common in children than adults, and it 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.

Complications

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.

In people with brown and Black skin, dermatitis might cause the affected area to darken or lighten (post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation or hypopigmentation). It might take months or years to return to your usual skin color.

Prevention

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%.