Dermatitis is a general term for conditions that cause inflammation of the skin. Examples include atopic dermatitis (eczema), contact dermatitis and seborrheic dermatitis (dandruff). These conditions cause red rashes, dry skin and itchiness among other symptoms. Your dermatitis can be managed by your regular healthcare provider or by a dermatologist.
“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.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
The types of dermatitis include, but are not limited to:
See the “Causes and Symptoms” section for more details about the types of dermatitis.
Anyone – young and old – can get dermatitis. Some examples include:
There are several factors that put you at risk of getting dermatitis. Some examples include:
Atopic dermatitis risk factors include:
Contact dermatitis risk factors include:
Periorificial dermatitis risk factors include:
Dyshidrotic dermatitis risk factors include:
Itchiness and redness are commonly the first signs of dermatitis.
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.
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.
No type of dermatitis is contagious.
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.
Eczema is actually a type of dermatitis. It is also known as atopic dermatitis.
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.
Dermatitis can cause pain for some people. The symptoms can be different depending on the type of dermatitis.
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.
Dermatitis is caused by a combination of immune system activation, genetics and environmental triggers.
If you have dermatitis, you might also have another condition that doesn’t cause it, but is often found alongside it:
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:
Here are examples of signs and symptoms of common types of dermatitis:
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:
Try these tips to reduce your stress:
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.
Your healthcare provider will take a close look at your skin. They will look for classic signs of dermatitis such as a rash, redness, scales, dryness and more. They will ask about the symptoms you’re experiencing. Are you itchy? Does your skin feel like it’s burning? Is your skin dry? Have you come into contact with anything that might irritate your skin?
The conversation with your healthcare provider will need to cover a lot of information. Be sure to be specific about your symptoms.
Usually your healthcare provider will be able to diagnose dermatitis based on examining your skin. However, when there is doubt, they may perform the following tests:
The type of treatment depends on the type of dermatitis and its location. Step number one is to avoid whatever triggers the dermatitis. That may be stress, a chemical, tobacco smoke and/or a number of other irritants that cause or worsen your dermatitis. Step number two is to try remedies on your own. Step number three is medication prescribed by your healthcare provider.
There some treatments you can do at home, but you should only do them with instructions and permission from your healthcare provider:
There are some other treatments you can do at home with no supervision:
Your healthcare provider may prescribe one or more of the following medications:
No treatment can claim to eliminate the symptoms of dermatitis 100% of the time. Treatments manage symptoms with varying degrees of success. Talk to your healthcare provider about the best treatments for you.
Yes, if your usual healthcare provider is unable to help with your dermatitis. Dermatologists specialize in skin conditions.
The length of recovery time depends on the type of dermatitis and the treatment you get. Even with treatment, it can take several weeks or months to improve. Atopic dermatitis can be with you lifelong, but you can reduce the symptoms with treatment.
If you scratch your skin too much and too hard, you could possibly leave scars.
Do your best to avoid what triggers your dermatitis. That might be foods you’re sensitive or allergic to, chemicals that irritate your skin and/or soaps that do the same. Moisturize your skin regularly. Don’t overheat. Use a humidifier to keep the air from getting too dry. Try not to scratch. Reduce your stress.
If you have food allergies, then one of the reasons why you must avoid that food is that it may cause or worsen dermatitis. Up to 25% of people with dermatitis herpetiformis have celiac disease, a sensitivity to gluten. Examples of common allergies include peanuts, dairy, eggs, sugar and alcohol. Pay attention to what you eat. If your dermatitis flares up after you eat a certain food, then you might have an allergy.
Discuss diet changes with your healthcare provider. It may also be helpful to see a dietician. Dieticians can help you create new meal plans.
Dermatitis can be with you lifelong. It can start in infancy and continue through adulthood. It can start in the teenage years and disappear by young adulthood. Each possibility depends on the person and on the type of dermatitis they have.
There are complications that come with dermatitis. The following do not apply to all types, and do not apply to all people, but are still common:
Scratching your skin can sometimes lead to infections and scars. Try to get treatment as soon as you notice dermatitis symptoms so that you can avoid this.
Dermatitis is both common and normal. Many people live with it.
Managing your symptoms is important for living with dermatitis. Do your best to keep your dermatitis “under control.” You can do this by following your healthcare provider’s instructions. Try your at-home remedies and take any prescribed medications.
You may find that there are times when your dermatitis disappears. This is known as a “remission” period. Other times you may have a “flare up,” which is when your dermatitis gets worse.
Do your best not to scratch your dermatitis as this can lead to infections and scars.
Don’t wait until you’re so uncomfortable that you can’t sleep before seeing your healthcare provider about your skin. See them as soon as symptoms start so that you can get treatment. See them especially soon if you think there’s an infection, or if you’re in a lot of pain.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
See your healthcare provider as soon as you start to see symptoms of dermatitis. Feeling itchy and/or in pain all the time affects your quality of life. It’s distracting, uncomfortable and can even keep you from having a good night’s sleep.
Dermatitis is very normal, but it may make you feel self-conscious in public. It can affect your self-esteem and your social life or relationships. But remember that as many as 15% to 20% of people experience some form of dermatitis at some point in time, so know that you’re not alone!
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/29/2020.
Learn more about our editorial process.