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What is Dermatitis?

Dermatitis is a general term to describe irritation or inflammation of the skin. The causes of dermatitis vary between types and typically involve itchy, dry skin or a rash. It is a non-contagious condition and moisturising regularly can help control the symptoms. Dermatitis can be managed by a dermatologist or by your regular healthcare provider. The three most common types of dermatitis are atopic dermatitis (eczema), seborrheic dermatitis, and contact dermatitis.

Types of Dermatitis

There are a variety of different types of dermatitis. Some can last for a long time, whereas others may fluctuate between periods of no symptoms and flare-ups. Some types of dermatitis are more common in adults, and others are more common in children.

Some of the common types of dermatitis include:

  • Atopic dermatitis: Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is a common skin condition found in children but may develop at any age. It is characterised by red and itchy skin. Eczema is often a chronic condition that tends to flare up periodically. It may be accompanied by hay fever or asthma. Some children outgrow the condition while it persists in others through adulthood.
  • Seborrheic dermatitis: Seborrheic dermatitis is an inflammatory skin disease that typically appears predominantly on the scalp, but can also appear on skin folds and oily areas of your skin such as eyebrows, nose, upper lip, chest, and behind the ears. In infants, the condition is called 'Cradle cap' and is a harmless, temporary condition that is not contagious.
  • Contact dermatitis: Contact dermatitis is a rash that develops on the skin as a reaction to a certain substance from touching it. It is itchy, red, and uncomfortable. The rash could be caused as a result of damage to the protective layer of your skin or from an allergy. Contact dermatitis is also known as allergic contact dermatitis and irritant contact dermatitis.

Some of the other less common types of dermatitis include:

  • Dermatitis neglecta: This type results from the buildup of sweat, sebum, bacteria, and corneocytes in a localised part of the skin, forming an adherent and compact crust of dirt.
  • Stasis dermatitis: This type is characterised by skin changes as a result of poor blood circulation. This condition can trigger skin discolouration in the lower limbs and may also cause the skin to thicken in texture.
  • Nummular dermatitis: This type is defined by oval-shaped sores on the skin, often appearing after a skin injury.
  • Neurodermatitis: This type involves an itchy patch of skin, often caused by stress or something irritating the skin.

Signs and Symptoms of Dermatitis

The signs and symptoms of dermatitis range from mild to severe and will appear different depending upon which area of the body is affected. Symptoms will differ on the type of dermatitis causing them, even though they can often be hard to differentiate.

In general, the symptoms of dermatitis may include:

  • Dry, cracked skin
  • Rashes
  • Itchy skin
  • Blisters
  • Swelling
  • Painful skin, with burning or stinging
  • Skin discolouration

Causes of Dermatitis

Dermatitis is typically caused by a combination of environmental triggers, genetics, and immune system activation.

  • Environment: Your environment may cause your immune system to alter the protective barrier of your skin. This causes more moisture to escape, and that can result in dermatitis. Potential environmental factors include exposure to some types of air pollutants and tobacco smoke. Fragrances in some soaps and skin products are also possible.
  • Exposure: Some types of dermatitis are triggered by exposure to chemicals and other irritants. Perioral dermatitis, for instance, may be triggered by exposure to fluoride in toothpaste or water.
  • Immune system: In some cases, your immune system overreacts. If you have atopic dermatitis, your immune system reacts to allergens or apparently small irritants or allergens. This triggers inflammation.
  • Genetics: Researchers have noted that if others in your family have dermatitis, you are more prone to have it. In addition, experts have recognised changes to genes that control a protein that assists your body to maintain healthy skin. Your skin cannot stay healthy without adequate levels of this protein.


To diagnose dermatitis, your physician will conduct a thorough examination of your skin and discuss your symptoms in detail with you. Your physician may also recommend a skin biopsy where a small piece of your skin is extracted and sent for laboratory analysis to rule out other conditions.

In addition, patch testing may also be recommended where small quantities of different substances are applied to your skin and then covered. Your physician observes your skin over the next few days during periodic visits to check for signs of a reaction. Patch testing can also aid in diagnosing specific types of allergies causing your dermatitis.


Treatments for dermatitis often depend upon the cause, type, and severity of symptoms. Several types of dermatitis normally clear up on their own. For instance, contact dermatitis often improves once you are no longer in contact with known irritants.

Nevertheless, if your dermatitis does not improve on its own, your dermatologist or physician may recommend:

  • Topical steroid creams, such as hydrocortisone, to reduce inflammation and relieve itchiness
  • Steroid-free immunomodulating topicals
  • Moisturising lotions and creams to treat dry skin
  • Medications for itching and allergies, such as antihistamines
  • Antifungal agents and antidandruff shampoos to treat seborrhea
  • Rash creams containing petroleum jelly or zinc oxide to treat diaper rash
  • Phototherapy or exposing affected regions to controlled amounts of light

Other home care changes that may help manage dermatitis include:

  • Avoiding irritants and allergens
  • Avoiding hot showers and baths
  • Wearing soft fabrics, such as cotton
  • Avoiding wearing rough and tight clothing
  • Changing your baby’s diapers more regularly and selecting diapers of proper fit that do not chafe or rub
  • Thoroughly drying the infant’s skin prior to putting on a new diaper
  • Use emollient as soap and cleanser
  • Avoid soaps and cosmetic cleansers/moisturisers
  • Bathing in lukewarm water instead of hot
  • Reducing your stress level with stress busters such as massage, meditation, and yoga