Dermatitis: Types, Causes, & Treatments

By Terez Malka, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
May 12, 2020

Nearly everyone has experienced some form of dermatitis, or skin irritation, during their life. In fact, one in 10 people will develop atopic or allergic dermatitis during their lifetime. Dermatitis can cause skin to become red, itchy, swollen, or dry. The severity, symptoms, and causes vary from person to person.

Dermatitis is not contagious. You may notice it reoccurs based on factors like the environment, seasons, stress levels, or hormonal changes. Some types of dermatitis, such as seborrheic dermatitis or cradle cap, are more common in infants, while other types of dermatitis occur more frequently in adults.

Many cases of dermatitis can be treated easily, either by moisturizing regularly, or through the use of over-the-counter prescription creams, ointments, or, in some cases, oral treatments. Your doctor can help inspect your skin and decide on the best course of treatment.

What Is Dermatitis?

Dermatitis is the general term used to describe an irritation of the skin. If you’re experiencing dermatitis, you may notice a rash, redness, itching, or general discomfort on your skin’s surface. The intensity of your symptoms and the duration will vary depending on the type of dermatitis you have.

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Types of Dermatitis

By understanding which dermatitis you’re experiencing, you can better treat your condition and prevent any flare-ups in the future. Common types of dermatitis include:

Atopic dermatitis

Also known as eczema, atopic dermatitis is often inherited and begins during infancy. Eczema is identified by red, dry itchy areas—often in the folds of the elbows, knees, or neck. Recurrences with eczema are common, especially during certain seasons or with exposure to allergens or irritants.

Dyshidrotic dermatitis (dyshidrotic eczema)

A variant of eczema seen on the hands or feet, dyshidrotic dermatitis causes fluid-filled blisters, usually caused by stress or exposure to an irritant or allergen.

Contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis occurs when your skin comes into contact with irritants or has an allergic reaction to something you have touched. This type of dermatitis causes redness, itching, swelling and/or stinging. Some varieties can cause blistering or an oozy rash. This is the type of dermatitis caused by poison ivy, poison oak, and allergic reactions. Contact dermatitis is not contagious and is not spread by the fluid present in blisters.

Seborrheic dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis, also referred to as cradle cap in infants, is usually seen on parts of the body that produce oil like the scalp, face, upper chest, and back. Seborrheic dermatitis causes the skin to become rough, scaly, or red, and the scalp to produce dandruff. You may see yellow or oily flakes. While treatable, seborrheic dermatitis is cyclical, meaning it often improves temporarily and then returns again.

Tinea corporis

Sometimes referred to as ringworm, tinea corporis is a common fungal infection that can usually be easily treated with antifungal cream. It may cause mildly itchy, raised, round or oval lesions. In some cases it may affect larger body areas and cause minor skin discoloration. Related conditions are jock itch, when it impacts the groin area, athlete’s foot, tinea cruris (in the beard), and tinea capitis (on the scalp). These are all treatable with topical or oral medications.

Other types of dermatitis

Less common types of dermatitis include:

  • Dermatitis neglecta: Dermatitis neglecta, or DN, occurs when skin cells build up due to a lack of hygiene or washing.
  • Follicular eczema: Follicular eczema causes skin thickening and bumps within hair follicles.
  • Neurodermatitis: When skin is aggravated or itchy because of stress or irritants, it could be a sign of neurodermatitis.
  • Nummular dermatitis: This type of dermatitis can be seen after a skin injury (like a burn, trauma, or bite), and presents with coin-shaped, itchy lesions.
  • Stasis dermatitis: Inadequate blood circulation can lead to skin inflammation, most often seen in the lower legs.
  • Intertrigo: A yeast infection in the skin folds, often caused by moist, warm conditions.
  • Infections: Bacterial and viral illnesses can both cause rashes and dermatitis.
  • Urticaria: Commonly referred to as hives, urticaria are very itchy, raised, red, round lesions. They may be caused by allergic reactions, viral illnesses, cold, or heat, or sometimes have no underlying cause.
  • Psoriasis: An autoimmune disease that can cause scaly, itchy, red, areas, often on the backs of elbows or front of your knees, or on the feet or scalp. This may cause only a rash or can cause other medical problems, such as joint pain.

Dermatitis Symptoms

Depending on the type of dermatitis you’re experiencing, symptoms will appear in different areas of the body. The appearance, frequency, and severity of symptoms vary from person to person. Regardless of the type of dermatitis you experience, common signs of dermatitis include:

  • Itchy or painful skin
  • Rash
  • Blistering
  • Dry or cracking skin
  • Redness or swelling of the skin

What Causes Dermatitis?

You may develop dermatitis for a variety of reasons, whether it’s hereditary or an underlying condition. Common causes for dermatitis include:

  • Contact with an irritant or allergies: Contact dermatitis occurs when the skin has an allergic reaction after coming in direct contact of an irritating substance. Common skin irritants include plants like poison ivy or oak, or everyday items like cosmetics, detergent, jewelry, or food.
  • Inherited traits: Your family’s history of prior skin conditions may increase your likelihood of developing dermatitis.
  • Health conditions: Certain existing health conditions, like asthma, are associated with dermatitis.
  • Natural occurrence: Despite best efforts, natural occurrences can cause dermatitis. With seborrheic dermatitis, naturally-occurring yeast in the oils that body secretes can cause skin irritation or rashes. Heat rashes and minor fungal infections in skin folds may occur naturally as well.
  • Activities: Some daily activities, either at home or at work, can cause dermatitis. For example, frequent hand washing, cleaning with solvents or chemical products, or exposure to irritating substances, can cause dermatitis.
  • Stress or hormones: Changes in stress levels or hormonal fluctuations can cause dermatitis flare-ups.

How to Diagnose Dermatitis

When diagnosing dermatitis, a doctor or dermatologist will talk to you about your symptoms and medical history, and examine your skin. Some types of dermatitis can be diagnosed with a physical exam alone, while others require further examination or testing. Your doctor may also perform the following:

  • Skin biopsy: Your doctor removes a small piece of skin to be viewed closely in a microscope at a lab.
  • Patch test: Your doctor will put small amounts of different substances on your skin and study the next few days to monitor the reaction. This helps narrow down what exactly is causing the irritation or allergic reaction.

How to Treat Dermatitis

The treatment for dermatitis varies greatly depending upon the type, affected areas, and severity of your symptoms. In some cases, dermatitis can clear up on its own after a few days to a week. Your doctor may also recommend:

  • Calcineurin inhibitors applied as topical creams or ointments
  • Topical steroids such as hydrocortisone or prescription creams or ointments
  • Over-the-counter or prescription anti-fungal cream or ointment for yeast or fungal infections
  • Prescription antibiotics if a skin infection has occurred
  • Phototherapy, which entails exposing skin to a specific amount of natural or artificial light
  • Using oral or injectable corticosteroids for advanced cases

At-home remedies for dermatitis

There are many at-home remedies which can minimize your exposure to skin irritants, or soothe existing dermatitis. Remedies include:

  • Bath additions: Add ground oatmeal or baking soda to a lukewarm or cool bath for itch relief.
  • Keep skin moist: Be diligent about moisturizing regularly with a fragrance-free oil or water-based lotion.
  • Add supplements: Dietary supplements such as vitamin D and probiotics may help deter dermatitis.
  • Allergy medication: An over-the-counter antihistamine such as cetirizine (Zyrtec), loratadine (Claritin), and/or diphenhydramine (Benadryl) for allergies could help keep dermatitis symptoms at bay.
  • Cotton clothing: Wear loose-fitting, cotton clothing to avoid chafing or rubbing of the skin.
  • Soothing wash cloth: Apply a cool wash cloth to the affected area for relief from skin irritation.
  • Steroid cream: Non-prescription anti-inflammatory ointments with steroids, such as hydrocortisone, can ease itching.
  • Minimize irritants: Use unscented laundry detergent and bathing products, or those for sensitive skin.

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How to Prevent Dermatitis

It’s essential to understand what’s triggering your dermatitis in order to combat flare-ups. There are many ways you can prevent your dermatitis from worsening, or to prevent any recurrences including:

  • Diligent skin care: Don’t pick, rub, or scratch the affected area—this can worsen your dermatitis symptoms, lead to infection, or result in the spread of dermatitis to other areas of the body.
  • Avoid dry skin: Keep skin hydrated by drinking enough water daily, using mild soap, taking shorter baths or showers, and avoiding extremely hot water.
  • Moisturize regularly: Frequently using a gentle, fragrance-free, water or oil-based moisturizers on your skin can help prevent dry, rough skin.
  • Manage stress levels: Meditation, yoga, and acupuncture are helpful ways to relax and lower stress. Dermatitis can be caused by stress, so it can be very important to learn how to control your response to stress.

Risk Factors and Complications

Your genetic predisposition, your career, or any underlying health conditions increase your likelihood of developing dermatitis. If you know you are more likely to develop dermatitis—or understand that your experience with dermatitis may be more complicated—speak to your doctor about ways to lower your risk. Common risk factors and complications include:

  • Age: Dermatitis can occur at any age, but atopic dermatitis (eczema) is known to begin in infancy. About 60% of those with atopic dermatitis develop it before age two, and 90% develop it before age five.
  • Family history: If someone in your family is prone to dermatitis, you’re at a higher risk to develop skin irritation.
  • Environmental or occupational factors: Certain professions can put you at a higher risk for dermatitis. Those in the health care industry who are required to wash their hands frequently, or workers who are regularly using or exposed to solvents and cleaning chemicals face a higher likelihood of dermatitis.
  • Existing health conditions: Those with outstanding health issues, such as asthma, heart failure, Parkinson’s disease, or autoimmune diseases are more likely to develop dermatitis.
  • Scratching: If itchy patches of dermatitis are scratched open or raw, it can lead to infection. In rare occurrences, these types of skin infections can spread and become life-threatening.

When to See a Doctor

Some cases of dermatitis clear up on their own, and not all forms of dermatitis are severe enough to warrant a visit to the doctor. However, if your symptoms are debilitating or interfering with your day-to-day, contact your medical provider. Other reasons to seek a doctor’s guidance include:

  • Your symptoms have not improved or have worsened with at-home treatment
  • You think you may have a possible skin infection, (signs include pus drainage, warmth, pain, red streaks)
  • Your skin is severely painful
  • The affected area is spreading

How K Health Can Help

If your skin is irritating you, it’s important to find out what’s causing it so you can get treated.

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K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Terez Malka, MD

Dr. Terez Malka is a board-certified pediatrician and emergency medicine physician.