What Is Dermatitis?

Dermatitis is inflammation in the skin, which leads to rash and itching.

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Dermatitis is inflammation in the skin. It is commonly known as eczema. Both terms are used to describe dry, itchy, red patches of skin that can sometimes be painful. There are many different causes of dermatitis, which can present as a passing experience or a chronic illness. 

This article will discuss the types and causes of dermatitis and explain how it relates to eczema. We’ll cover when to see a healthcare provider, how to get a diagnosis, and what treatment might help. 

Man scratching arm

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Types of Dermatitis

Dermatitis is characterized by inflammation, or a red, sometimes raised appearance to the skin. This is different from run-of-the-mill dry skin, which occurs in many people during seasonal changes or due to age. However, dry skin and itching can lead to dermatitis.

Dermatitis is closely associated with eczema, a skin condition that causes swelling, usually alongside a rash, itchiness, and pain. There are many different types of dermatitis, including:

Atopic Dermatitis

Atopic dermatitis, commonly known simply as eczema, is a chronic skin condition. It causes a red, itchy, often painful rash and is characterized by flares in symptoms and periods of remission. Atopic dermatitis can be treated with moisturizers, lifestyle adjustments, and over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications. 

Contact Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis occurs when your skin comes into contact with something it is allergic to or that is irritating to your skin. It can be acute or chronic. Contact dermatitis causes rashes that are itchy or painful. It can cause redness, blisters, swelling, and tenderness as well. 

Dyshidrotic Eczema 

Dyshidrotic eczema is a form of dermatitis that causes painful burning and blisters, usually on the hand and feet. It’s most common in adult females, although healthcare providers aren’t sure why it occurs. 

Neurodermatitis

Neurodermatitis causes itchy, scaly patches of skin that are usually small. It affects up to 12% of the population. It can be triggered by dry skin, allergies and other causes. 

Nummular Eczema

Nummular eczema is characterized by round, coin-sized patches of dry skin, most often on the arms and legs. They may ooze or crust over. 

Seborrheic Dermatitis 

Seborrheic dermatitis is dermatitis on the scalp. You likely know it as dandruff or cradle cap when it occurs in infants. It’s associated with an overgrowth of yeast on the scalp and high hormone and lipid (fat) levels. 

 Stasis Dermatitis 

Stasis dermatitis is skin inflammation that affects the legs. It causes a rash and swelling that is sometimes mistaken for varicose veins. Varicose veins can also be a symptom of stasis dermatitis. 

It’s possible to have more than one type of dermatitis at one time. In fact, having one form of dermatitis, like atopic dermatitis, often raises your risk for other types. However, since treatments vary, it’s important to work with a dermatologist who can distinguish between the various types of dermatitis and help you find treatment.

Dermatitis Symptoms

Dermatitis symptoms can vary, depending on the type. However, there are common symptoms that often appear. You may experience some of these symptoms, but not everyone has them all:

  • Itchiness, which sometimes starts before a rash appears
  • A red rash 
  • Raised, inflamed areas or plaques on the skin
  • Pain, which may be independent from itchiness
  • Blisters, which may ooze, weep or crust over
  • Cracked and broken areas of skin

While these are the core symptoms of dermatitis, the condition can cause complications over time, including impacts on your mental and emotional well-being. 

Causes

Healthcare providers and researchers aren’t sure what causes atopic dermatitis. However, it appears to be an inflammatory condition. It’s also closely linked with allergies, including food and contact allergies. 

While the root causes of the condition aren’t yet clear, there are common eczema triggers. Triggers vary from person to person, so if you have dermatitis, keeping a journal detailing when you experience symptoms may be helpful. This might help you identify the triggers that are most impactful for you.  

Triggers can include:

  • Foods that you eat
  • Lotions, soaps and other personal care products
  • Materials, including certain fabrics like wool
  • Environmental allergens like dust or pollen
  • Pet dander
  • Mold
  • Seasonal changes to weather
  • Recent infection
  • Stress
  • Hormonal changes
  • Dry skin

Diagnosis

Your healthcare provider may be able to diagnose dermatitis by doing a physical exam and talking with you about your symptoms. It’s also helpful to see a board-certified dermatologist if you believe you have dermatitis. These healthcare providers specialize in studying the skin, and they’ll likely be able to tell if you have more than one type of dermatitis. 

Treatment

Most forms of dermatitis are treated with lifestyle changes and medications. The treatments might vary based on the specific type of dermatitis you have, so be sure to speak to your healthcare provider if you experience symptoms that are outside the norm. 

In general, a treatment plan for dermatitis involves:

  • Moisturizing the skin: People with dermatitis benefit from keeping their skin well-hydrated. In addition, lotions that are specifically designed for eczema and dermatitis can be helpful. 
  • Identifying and avoiding triggers: Staying away from your triggers can keep symptoms at bay. For example, avoid harsh soaps, itching clothing, and other items that can worsen your symptoms. 
  • Medications: OTC and prescription medications can help reduce dermatitis symptoms. Steroid creams applied to the skin can reduce inflammation, while oral prescriptions treat inflammation throughout your body. 
  • Procedures: Phototherapy and laser therapy can help some people with dermatitis. 

Coping

Living with dermatitis can impact your quality of life. It’s not uncommon for people with dermatitis to experience complications, including depression, anxiety, and bullying. Working with a healthcare provider to keep your symptoms controlled may help reduce the impact of dermatitis on your life. However, if you struggle with your emotional or mental health, it’s important to reach out to mental health professionals. 

Summary

Dermatitis is inflammation of the skin. It’s most commonly caused by eczema, and the two terms are used interchangeably. There are many different types of dermatitis. A dermatologist can help you determine which is affecting you. While the treatments vary depending on the type of dermatitis, they usually include moisturizing, avoiding triggers, and using over-the-counter and prescription medications to reduce inflammation. 

A Word From Verywell

Learning what’s causing your itchy, dry, inflamed skin can be confusing. A dermatologist experienced in treating dermatitis can help guide you to treatment options and coping strategies that will work for you. 

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kelly Burch
Kelly Burch is has written about health topics for more than a decade. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and more.