What is Dermatitis?

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Dermatitis is a general term for skin inflammation. With dermatitis, your skin will typically look dry, swollen, and red. Depending on the type of dermatitis you have, causes vary. However, it's not contagious.

Dermatitis can be uncomfortable for some. How itchy your skin feels can range from mild to severe. Certain types of dermatitis can last a long time, while others may flare up, depending on the season, what you're exposed to, or stress.

Some types of dermatitis are more common in children, and others are more common in adults. You may find relief from dermatitis with medications and topical creams. Contact your doctor for an appointment if your skin is infected, painful, or uncomfortable, or if your dermatitis is widespread or isn't getting better.

Symptoms of dermatitis

The symptoms of dermatitis range from mild to severe and will look different depending on what part of the body is affected. Not all people with dermatitis experience all symptoms. In general, the symptoms of dermatitis may include:

  • rashes
  • blisters
  • dry, cracked skin
  • itchy skin
  • painful skin, with stinging or burning
  • redness
  • swelling

Types of dermatitis

There are several different types of dermatitis. Below are the most common:

  • Atopic dermatitis. Also called eczema, this skin condition is usually inherited and develops during infancy. Someone with eczema will likely experience rough patches of dry, itchy skin.
  • Contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis happens when a substance touches your skin and causes an allergic reaction or irritation. These reactions can develop further into rashes that burn, sting, itch, or blister.
  • Dyshidrotic dermatitis. In this type of dermatitis, the skin can't protect itself. This results in itchy, dry skin, often accompanied by small blisters. It occurs mainly on the feet and hands.
  • Seborrheic dermatitis. Also known as cradle cap in babies, this type is most common on the scalp, though it can also occur on the face and chest. It often causes scaly patches, red skin, and dandruff.

Other types

Some other types of dermatitis include:

  • Neurodermatitis. This type involves an itchy patch of skin, often triggered by stress or something irritating the skin.
  • Nummular dermatitis. Nummular dermatitis involves oval sores on the skin, often occurring after a skin injury.
  • Stasis dermatitis. This type involves skin changes due to poor blood circulation.
  • Dermatitis neglecta. Dermatitis neglecta refers to a skin condition that results from not practicing good hygiene habits.

The causes of dermatitis

The causes of dermatitis vary depending on the type. Some types, like dyshidrotic eczema, neurodermatitis, and nummular dermatitis, may have unknown causes.

Contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis occurs when you come in direct contact with an irritant or allergen. Common materials that cause allergic reactions include:

  • detergents
  • cosmetics
  • nickel
  • poison ivy and oak


Eczema is caused by a combination of factors like dry skin, environmental setting, and bacteria on the skin. It's often genetic, as people with eczema tend to have a family history of eczema, allergies, or asthma.

Seborrheic dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis is likely caused by a fungus in the oil glands. It tends to get worse in the spring and winter. This type of dermatitis also appears to have a genetic component for some people.

Stasis dermatitis

Stasis dermatitis occurs due to poor circulation in the body, most commonly in the lower legs and feet.


The trigger is what causes your skin to have a reaction. It could be a substance, your environment, or something happening in your body. Common triggers that cause dermatitis to flare include:

  • stress
  • hormonal changes
  • the environment
  • irritating substances

Risk factors for dermatitis

Factors that increase your chances of getting dermatitis include:

  • the environment
  • family history
  • health conditions
  • allergies
  • asthma

Some factors increase your risk for certain types of dermatitis more than others. For example, frequent washing and drying of hands will strip your skin's protective oils and change its pH balance. This is why healthcare workers typically have hand dermatitis.

Diagnosing dermatitis

Your doctor will perform a physical exam and discuss your medical history before making a diagnosis. In some cases, a dermatologist can diagnose the type of dermatitis just by looking at the skin.

If there's reason to suspect you might have an allergic reaction to something, your doctor might do a skin patch test. You can also ask for one yourself. In a skin patch test, your doctor will put small amounts of different substances on your skin. After a few days, they'll check for reactions and determine what you may or may not be allergic to. In some cases, your dermatologist may perform a skin biopsy to help figure out the cause. A skin biopsy involves your doctor removing a small sample of the affected skin, which is then looked at under a microscope. Other tests can be done on the skin sample to help determine the cause of your dermatitis.

At-home and medical treatment options

Treatments for dermatitis depend on the type, severity of symptoms, and cause. Your skin may clear up on its own after one to three weeks. If it doesn't, your doctor or dermatologist may recommend:

  • medications to reduce allergies and itching, like an antihistamine such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
  • phototherapy, or exposing affected areas to controlled amounts of light
  • topical creams with a steroid, like hydrocortisone, to relieve itchiness and inflammation
  • creams or lotions for dry skin
  • oatmeal baths to relieve itching

Antibiotics or antifungal medications are usually given only if an infection has developed. Infections can occur when the skin is broken due to intense scratching.

Home care for dermatitis may include applying cool, wet cloths to the skin to reduce itching and discomfort. You can try adding baking soda to a cool bath to help reduce symptoms. If your skin is broken, you can cover the wound with a dressing or bandage to prevent irritation or infection.

Dermatitis can sometimes flare up when you're stressed. Alternative therapies may be helpful in reducing stress such as:

  • acupuncture
  • massage
  • yoga

Dietary changes, like eliminating foods that trigger a reaction, may help you manage eczema symptoms. In some cases, dietary supplements like vitamin D and probiotics can help as well.

Dermatitis prevention methods

Awareness is the first step in avoiding dermatitis. The only way to prevent an allergic reaction is to avoid contact with allergens or substances that cause rashes, like poison ivy. But if you have eczema which isn't always preventable your best option is to prevent a flare-up.

To prevent flare-ups:

  • Try to avoid scratching the affected area. Scratching can open or reopen wounds and spread the bacteria to another part of your body.
  • To prevent dry skin, by taking shorter baths, using mild soaps, and bathing in warm water instead of hot. Most people also find relief by moisturizing frequently (especially after a shower).
  • Use water-based moisturizers after washing hands and oil-based moisturizers for extremely dry skin.


While dermatitis isn't often serious, scratching hard or too frequently can lead to open sores and infections. These can spread, but they rarely become life- threatening. You can prevent or manage potential flare-ups with treatment. It might take some time to figure out the right treatment or combination of treatments, but it's out there.

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