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Dermatitis

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Sep 8, 2023.

Overview

Dermatitis is a common condition that causes swelling and irritation of the skin. It has many causes and forms and often involves itchy, dry skin or a rash. Or it might cause the skin to blister, ooze, crust or flake. Three common types of this condition are atopic dermatitis, contact dermatitis and seborrheic dermatitis. Atopic dermatitis is also known as eczema.

Dermatitis isn't contagious, but it can be very uncomfortable. Moisturizing regularly helps control the symptoms. Treatment also may include medicated ointments, creams and shampoos.

Symptoms

Each type of dermatitis tends to occur on a different part of the body. Symptoms may include:

When to see a doctor

See your doctor if:

Seek immediate medical attention if you have a fever and the rash looks infected.

Contact dermatitis

Illustration of contact dermatitis on different skin colors. Contact dermatitis can appear as an itchy rash.

Causes

A common cause of dermatitis is contact with something that irritates your skin or triggers an allergic reaction. Examples of such things are 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:

Complications

Repeated scratching that breaks the skin can cause open sores and cracks. These increase the risk of infection from bacteria and fungi. These skin infections can spread and become life-threatening, though this is rare.

In people with brown and Black skin, dermatitis might cause the affected skin to darken or lighten. These conditions are called post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and post-inflammatory hypopigmentation. It might take months or years for the skin to return to its usual color.

Prevention

Wear protective clothing if you're doing a task that involves irritants or caustic chemicals.

Developing a basic skin care routine also may help prevent dermatitis. The following habits can help reduce the drying effects of bathing:

Diagnosis

To diagnose dermatitis, your doctor will likely look at your skin and talk with you about your symptoms and medical history. You may need to have a small piece of skin removed for study in a lab, which helps rule out other conditions. This procedure is called a skin biopsy.

Patch testing

Your doctor may suggest a patch test to identify the cause of your symptoms. In this test, small amounts of potential allergens are put on sticky patches. Then the patches are placed on your skin. They stay on your skin for 2 to 3 days. During this time, you'll need to keep your back dry. Then your health care provider checks for skin reactions under the patches and determines whether further testing is needed.

Treatment

The treatment for dermatitis varies, depending on the cause and your symptoms. If home care steps don't ease your symptoms, your doctor may prescribe medicine. Possible treatments include:

Lifestyle and home remedies

These self-care habits can help you manage dermatitis and feel better:

Alternative medicine

Many alternative therapies, including those listed below, have helped some people manage their dermatitis.

The evidence for whether these approaches work is mixed. And sometimes herbal and traditional remedies cause irritation or an allergic reaction.

Alternative therapies are sometimes called integrative medicine. If you're considering dietary supplements or other integrative medicine approaches, talk with your doctor about their pros and cons.

Preparing for an appointment

You may first bring your concerns to the attention of your primary care provider. Or you may see a doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of skin conditions (dermatologist) or allergies (allergist).

Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.

What you can do

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask you a few questions. Being ready to answer them may free up time to go over any points you want to spend more time on. Your doctor might ask:

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