What is dermatitis and what does it look like?

“Dermatitis” is a word used to describe a number of skin irritations and rashes caused by genetics, an overactive immune system, infections, allergies, irritating substances and more. Common symptoms include dry skin, redness and itchiness.

In the word “dermatitis,” “derm” means “skin” and “itis” means “inflammation.” The word as a whole means “inflammation of the skin.” The rashes range from mild to severe and can cause a variety of problems, depending on their cause.

Dermatitis causes no serious harm to your body. It is not contagious, and it does not mean that your skin is unclean or infected. There are treatment methods and medications that can manage your symptoms.

What are the types of dermatitis?

The types of dermatitis include, but are not limited to:

See the “Causes and Symptoms” section for more details about the types of dermatitis.

Who gets dermatitis?

Anyone – young and old – can get dermatitis. Some examples include:

  • Your baby can get cradle cap and diaper rash.
  • Atopic dermatitis (eczema) usually begins in childhood, but anyone at any age can get it.
  • Anyone can get contact dermatitis as it just involves skin to substance contact.
  • Individuals with celiac disease are prone to dermatitis herpetiformis.

There are several factors that put you at risk of getting dermatitis. Some examples include:

Atopic dermatitis risk factors include:

  • A family history of dermatitis, hay fever or asthma.
  • Being female.
  • Being African-American.

Contact dermatitis risk factors include:

  • If you work around chemicals such as in a factory, restaurant or garden.

Periorificial dermatitis risk factors include:

  • Being female.
  • Being ages 15 to 45.

Dyshidrotic dermatitis risk factors include:

  • If you sweat a lot.
  • Prolonged exposed to water and/or irritants.
  • If you live in a warmer climate.

What’s the first sign of dermatitis?

Itchiness and redness are commonly the first signs of dermatitis.

Where does dermatitis form on the body?

The location of your dermatitis depends on the type. For example, atopic dermatitis can appear anywhere on your skin. But, in teens and adults, it’s typically on the hands, inner elbows, neck, knees, ankles, feet and around the eyes. Seborrheic dermatitis and cradle cap are typically on your scalp, face and ears. Periorificial dermatitis is found around your eyes, mouth, nostrils and sometimes the genitals.

How common is dermatitis?

Some types of dermatitis are very common while others are less common. Atopic dermatitis affects two percent to three percent of adults and 25% of children. Contact dermatitis happens at some point to 15% to 20% of people.

Is dermatitis contagious?

No type of dermatitis is contagious.

What’s the difference between dermatitis and psoriasis?

Psoriasis and dermatitis – especially seborrheic dermatitis – can look similar. Both look like patches of red skin with flakes of skin on top of and around the redness. However, in psoriasis, the scales are often thicker and the edges of those scales are well-defined.

Seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis do overlap in a condition called “sebopsoriasis.” That is when you have the symptoms of both.

Discuss your questions with your healthcare provider regarding which type of skin condition you have. You can have more than one skin condition at a time. Treatments for one may not work for the other.

What’s the difference between dermatitis and eczema?

Eczema is actually a type of dermatitis. It is also known as atopic dermatitis.

What’s the difference between dermatitis and rosacea?

Rosacea can cause red skin that looks like dermatitis. However, rosacea can also cause pimples, and the redness is typically found on your forehead, nose, chin and cheeks. Have your healthcare provider take a look at your skin to determine if your condition is dermatitis, rosacea, or something else.

Does dermatitis hurt?

Dermatitis can cause pain for some people. The symptoms can be different depending on the type of dermatitis.

Does dermatitis burn?

Some people feel a burning sensation. Others feel itchiness or both itchiness and a burning feeling. The sensations vary from person to person, and from type to type.

What causes dermatitis?

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

  • Immune system. Sometimes your immune system overreacts. If you have atopic dermatitis, your immune system reacts to seemingly small irritants or allergens. This causes inflammation.
  • Genetics. Researchers have observed that if others in your family have dermatitis, you’re more likely to have it. Additionally, experts have identified changes to genes that control a protein that helps your body maintain healthy skin. Your skin cannot remain healthy without normal levels of that protein.
  • Environment. Your environment may make your immune system change the protective barrier of your skin. That causes more moisture to escape, and that can lead to dermatitis. Possible environmental factors include exposure to tobacco smoke and some types of air pollutants. Fragrances in some skin products and soap are also possible.
  • Exposure. Some types of dermatitis are caused by exposure to chemicals and other irritants. Perioral dermatitis, for example, may be caused by exposure to fluoride in water or toothpaste.

If you have dermatitis, you might also have another condition that doesn’t cause it, but is often found alongside it:

  • Sleep loss.
  • Depression.
  • Anxiety.
  • Asthma.
  • Allergies.

What are the signs and symptoms of dermatitis?

The symptoms depend on the type of dermatitis. You may have one type, or you may have several. Each type may have one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Itching.
  • Red rashes and bumps.
  • Rashes that look and/or feel like a burn.
  • Dry skin.
  • Fluid-filled blisters.
  • Thickening, hardening and swelling skin.
  • Crusting, scaling and creasing skin.
  • Painful ulcers.
  • When scratched, the rashes may ooze fluid or bleed.

Here are examples of signs and symptoms of common types of dermatitis:

  • Atopic dermatitis (eczema). Atopic dermatitis happens when there is damage to the skin barrier. This causes the skin to become inflamed, red, dry, bumpy and itchy.
  • Contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis is an allergic or irritant reaction that causes a painful or itchy skin rash. As the name suggests, you get contact dermatitis from coming into contact with an allergen. Examples include an allergen like poison ivy and an irritant like a chemical.
  • Cradle cap (infant seborrheic dermatitis). Cradle cap is a harmless skin condition on the scalp of a baby that appears as yellow scaly patches surrounded by a red rash.
  • Diaper dermatitis (rash). As the name suggests, diaper dermatitis is when a rash appears on any part of a baby’s skin covered by a diaper. The skin gets broken down by wetness, movement and waste products.
  • Dyshidrotic dermatitis. This type of dermatitis causes itchy blisters on the edges of your fingers, palms, toes and the soles of your feet. The blisters can be painful.
  • Neurodermatitis. This type of dermatitis is caused by intense itching that irritates the nerve endings of the skin.
  • Nummular dermatitis. If you have circular, itchy spots on your skin, you might have nummular dermatitis. Your skin gets dry and itchy and you may get open sores.
  • Periorificial dermatitis: Periorificial dermatitis looks like acne or rosacea. It develops around your mouth, eyes and nose.
  • Seborrheic dermatitis (dandruff). Seborrheic dermatitis (called dandruff when it’s on your head) appears as red, dry, flaky, itchy skin on your scalp and other parts of your body.
  • Stasis dermatitis. Dermatitis of this type is caused by a problem with blood flow in your veins. Your ankles may swell and there may be scaling, itching, pain and open sores.

Does stress cause dermatitis?

Yes. Stress can cause and/or aggravate some skin conditions including dermatitis. There are mental/emotional signs of stress and physical signs of stress. They include:

Mental/emotional signs:

  • Constant worry, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Irritability, mood swings, or a short temper.
  • Depression.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Difficulty relaxing, or using alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drugs to relax.

Physical signs:

  • Muscle tension and aches and pains.
  • Diarrhea and constipation.
  • Sleeping more, or less.
  • Loss of sex drive.
  • Feeling nauseated or dizzy.

Try these tips to reduce your stress:

  • Take deep breaths. Count to ten.
  • Don’t aim for perfection. Accept that you can’t control everything.
  • Exercise every day.
  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Limit caffeine and alcohol.
  • Eat healthy meals.
  • Laugh a lot and try to have a positive attitude.
  • Journal.
  • Talk to friends and family, and to a therapist.

What worsens dermatitis? What triggers it?

Try your best to figure out what triggers your dermatitis. It’s important to remember that it can affect people differently.

Is your dermatitis triggered by a chemical you clean with? Do you get it every time you go to your uncle’s house, because he’s a smoker? Does your scalp feel itchy since you started that new shampoo? Did that rash on the inside of your wrist appear after you tried that new perfume? Does excessive sunlight make your dermatitis better or worse? Do you feel itchy every time you wear that wool sweater?

Remember what else worsens dermatitis: stress, hot showers, allergens like pollen and pet dander, etc. Find out what worsens your dermatitis and do your best to avoid it.

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