Dermatitis – A Type of Skin Irritation

A type of skin irritation that causes itching, swelling, redness and blisters. It can be caused by allergies, harsh soaps, detergents, fragrances in skin products and air pollutants. Other causes include family history, smoking and existing health conditions like asthma.


Your healthcare provider will look at your skin and ask questions about substances you may have been exposed to recently. A patch test may help find what’s causing your symptoms.


Dermatitis can make your skin red, swollen and itchy. It can also look flaky or dry. Some types of dermatitis may last a long time, and others may come and go. Itching can be the worst part. Rubbing and scratching the rash can worsen it and cause more itchiness. This starts what is called the itch-scratch cycle. In some cases the rash may ooze fluid or bleed.

Different kinds of dermatitis have different signs and symptoms. But the main symptom is itchy skin, usually with swelling and blisters that can sometimes ooze or crust over. The area where the rash appears tends to vary with each type of dermatitis.

For example, atopic dermatitis (eczema) usually appears in the creases of your elbows or knees or on the neck. It is a long-lasting condition that can be triggered by allergens and other things like stress or cold weather.

Contact dermatitis develops when you touch an irritant, such as certain soaps, jewelry or plants like poison ivy. This kind of dermatitis can cause itching and blisters in an area that was touched.

Neurodermatitis has a tingling feeling in your skin, and it can be triggered by irritants or stress. It can result in scaly or thickened patches of skin and also a change in the color of your skin, especially on your fingers, feet or hands. Stasis dermatitis occurs when you don’t have enough blood flow to the lower part of your body, causing itchy and swollen areas that often ooze.


Dermatitis can last a long time and may cycle between flare-ups and periods with no symptoms. Different types of dermatitis can affect people in different ways, and the severity of the symptoms varies from person to person. It’s important to see your doctor if you think you have a rash that could be dermatitis.

Your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms and when they started. They will also do a physical exam of the affected area. Your doctor may order other tests to find what’s causing the rash. For example, they may order allergy testing to help identify what your triggers are. Allergy testing involves attaching small amounts of different substances to your back and observing whether you have a reaction.

Other tests your doctor may order include blood tests, skin biopsies, or patch testing for contact dermatitis (CD). A patch test uses tiny amounts of common allergens to see if they cause a rash on your skin. For eczema, your doctor may take a sample of the rash to look at under a microscope. They may also ask about your family history of eczema and your current health conditions. Seborrheic dermatitis (sometimes called dandruff or cradle cap) is caused by an overgrowth of yeast and typically appears on the scalp and face. This rash usually develops during infancy and then waxes and wanes with hormone changes.


Dermatitis treatments vary by type and severity of symptoms. Most types will clear up on their own, particularly if you avoid contact with the things that cause it (allergens).

For example, atopic dermatitis, which appears in children as a dry, scaly rash and can be extremely itchy, improves when your child stops using soaps or shampoos with dyes and fragrance. In some cases, your doctor may order patch testing, where small amounts of different substances are applied to the skin. The doctor then checks the area for a reaction. Patch testing can help identify specific allergies that may be causing your child’s dermatitis.

Other treatment options include moisturizers, which can help keep the skin hydrated; anti-itch creams, such as hydrocortisone ointment; and oral medications that decrease inflammation or prevent an allergic reaction. Antihistamines, such as Claritin or Benadryl, reduce the body’s response to allergens that trigger dermatitis; and calcineurin inhibitors, which decrease itching, are also used.

Other home care steps include bathing or showering in lukewarm water and using mild, unscented soaps. Wear cotton clothing and avoid rough fabrics, such as wool. Keep the skin covered when it’s irritated and try to relax or find ways to manage your stress. It’s important to stop scratching because it can worsen your rash, cause infection and even leave scars.


The cause of dermatitis isn’t fully understood, but experts know that the condition is due to the immune system. Sometimes your body’s natural defenses overreact to seemingly innocuous substances, such as chemicals used for cleaning, perfumes or pollen and pet dander. Symptoms can also be triggered by hot showers, cold weather and certain foods. A weakened protective barrier of the skin allows moisture to escape, which leads to inflammation.

If you have a reaction to an irritant, avoid contact with the substance that causes your symptoms (for example, poison ivy, soaps, detergents or jewelry containing nickel). Take special care to choose gentle shampoos and lotions, and wear cotton clothing.

Your health care provider can help you manage your rash by identifying the irritant or allergen and helping you find ways to minimize contact with it. He or she may recommend a steroid cream or oral antihistamine to reduce itching and swelling.

Some people outgrow dermatitis, but for many it’s a lifelong struggle. To prevent flare-ups, keep the affected area moisturized and avoid scratching, which can worsen the rash and lead to infection or scarring. If you can’t stop itching, try rubbing the area with a cool wash cloth or applying calamine lotion to soothe your skin. Keep your fingernails short and wear gloves if you must wash your hands frequently.