Dermatitis (DER-mah-tye-tis) is a common inflammation of the skin. There are various types of dermatitis, most of which cause red, itchy, swollen skin. The most common types are atopic dermatitis, also called atopic eczema (EKzem-ah), contact dermatitis or contact eczema, and seborrheic (seh-bo-REE-ik) dermatitis, which includes dandruff.
Dermatitis is a general term for skin swelling. Different types of dermatitis are not always clearly distinguishable and are frequently referred to by the general term eczema. Dermatitis can be caused by a wide range of allergies * , irritants, health conditions, and genetic factors. Dermatitis/eczema involves alterations in the barrier layer of the skin that enables water to escape and allergens * and irritants to enter, leading to dry, itchy, inflamed patches of skin. Eczematous skin also tends to be low in an antimicrobial agent called cathelicidin, making it susceptible to infection. More than 90 percent of people with eczema have colonies of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria on their skin, which increases inflammation and sensitivity to allergens. People with eczema also have reduced levels of a protective skin protein called claudin-1, making the skin more susceptible to allergens, bacteria, and fungi, especially yeast. Although dermatitis is not usually serious, it can cause discomfort, self-consciousness, and embarrassment.
Atopic dermatitis is often simply called eczema because it is the most common type of eczema. “Atopic” refers to a tendency toward allergies, although atopic dermatitis also can be caused by nonallergic reactions. It is characterized by dry, itchy skin and red rashes *
Atopic dermatitis is often caused by a combination of factors including genetic predisposition, dry skin, bacteria, environmental conditions, and/or immune-system dysfunction. It has a strong genetic component and is much more common in people with a personal or family history of eczema, allergies, or asthma * . Atopic dermatitis is often the first symptom of an allergic cascade: it may be followed by the sequential development of food allergies, hay fever * , and asthma. Up to 30 percent of people with atopic dermatitis will develop food allergies, and up to 60 percent will develop hay fever and/or asthma. People with atopic dermatitis are also at increased risk for other inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease, and for mental health disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression. People with celiac disease (gluten intolerance) are three times more likely to have eczema than those without.
Variations in several different genes appear to be involved in atopic dermatitis. In particular, 20 to 30 percent of people with atopic dermatitis have gene mutations that interfere with the production of a protein called filaggrin, which is important both for creating a barrier in the outermost layer of skin that keeps out water and foreign substances and also for producing a natural skin moisturizer.
Contact dermatitis can be caused by many different substances. Workers in contact with certain metals, solvents, or cleaning products are at risk. Healthcare workers are at risk for contact eczema on the hands from latex gloves. Burns, including sunburn, are also risk factors. Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac are the most common causes of allergic contact dermatitis, but allergic contact dermatitis can also be caused by flowers, herbs, and vegetables. Other common causes of contact dermatitis include:
Seborrheic dermatitis is a common inflammatory condition that affects areas of the skin that have many large sebaceous (oil) glands, especially the scalp, face, chest, armpits, and groin. It often occurs seasonally. Genetic predisposition is a major risk factor for seborrheic dermatitis. Other risk factors include:
Dandruff (pityriasis capitis) on the scalps of adolescents and adults and cradle cap on infants' scalps are mild forms of seborrheic dermatitis. Although scalp skin cells constantly die and flake off, dandruff is an overly rapid shedding of the skin that is believed to be caused by an immune-system overreaction to Malassezia yeast that feed on oils in the hair and scalp. Dandruff is not usually a sign of a health problem, but very severe dandruff can be a sign of an immune-system problem.
Dermatitis is very common. Atopic dermatitis affects 15 to 30 percent of children and 2 to 10 percent of adults. It almost always begins before age five. Over the past few decades, atopic eczema has become two to three times more common in industrialized countries, especially in dry climates and among city dwellers. Although it often improves or disappears in children, their skin may remain dry and easily irritated into adulthood, and an estimated 17 million adult Americans have severe chronic atopic dermatitis.
Contact dermatitis is the most common skin condition requiring medical attention and the most common work-related medical condition. In the United States, it is one of the top 10 reasons for visits to primary-care physicians and accounts for 7 percent of all visits to dermatologists. Contact dermatitis is more common in adults than in children and is twice as common in females as in males. It is more common in Caucasians than in Africans, Asians, or Native Americans.
About 20 percent of American children develop allergic contact dermatitis at some point prior to adolescence, and it is the most common skin condition in children under 11. Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac are the most common allergies in the United States, affecting 50 percent of the population. Allergic contact dermatitis from poison ivy or poison oak afliicts 10 to 50 million Americans of all ages every year. Allergic contact dermatitis from latex affects 1 to 6 percent of the population. Dermatitis is also the most common allergic drug reaction.
Seborrheic dermatitis, including common dandruff, is most common in infants under three months and in adults aged 30 to 60 years. It affects more adult men than women. Dandruff affects 15 to 20 percent of people at some point in their lives. Cradle cap is very common among newborns of all races and both genders, usually appearing in the first six weeks of life and only rarely after 9 to 12 months.
Dermatitis is not contagious. However, it is possible to transmit poison ivy between people.
In general, dermatitis causes rashes and dry, itchy skin, especially on the face, hands, feet, insides of the elbows, and behind the knees. Scratching can cause the skin to redden, swell, and itch more. The skin may also blister, ooze, crust, or flake off. Different types of dermatitis may look slightly different or are more likely to occur on different parts of the body.
Atopic dermatitis or eczema generally causes dry, itchy skin and rashes that tend to occur in flare-ups followed by periods of improvement. The rashes can occur anywhere on the skin, but they tend to affect different areas at different ages: the face, scalp, hands, and feet of infants; the insides of the elbows and knees and front of the neck in children; and the wrists, ankles, eyelids, and insides of the elbows and knees of adolescents and adults. Scratching the rash can cause redness, swelling, cracking, leaking of clear fluid, crusting, scaling, and thickened skin.
Contact dermatitis causes red, swollen, scaly, and sometimes blistered skin on areas that have contacted the allergen or irritant, usually within 48 hours of exposure. The rashes may itch, sting, or burn.
Seborrheic dermatitis causes patches of red, itchy skin covered by dry, greasy scales that are white, gray, or yellowish, especially on oily areas such as the scalp, face, upper chest, and back. Seborrheic dermatitis can be a long-term condition with periods of improvement followed by flare-ups. Cradle cap and dandruff are fine white scales without redness, inflammation, or itching. However, seborrheic dermatitis in the diaper area of infants is often accompanied by a yeast infection that can cause an itchy rash.
Dermatitis is usually diagnosed by the appearance of the rash and its location(s). Patients will be questioned about recent contact with potential irritants or allergens, personal and family allergies or asthma, medications, and foods that appear to cause flare-ups. A small piece of affected skin may be removed and examined under a microscope. Eliminating a suspected substance until the dermatitis has cleared up and then reintroducing the substance can be used to identify allergens. In particular, eliminating potential food allergens, such as dairy products, eggs, or nuts, from the diet one at a time can help identify the culprit. Patch tests, in which small amounts of suspected allergens are dabbed, scratched, or pricked into the skin, also are used to identify allergens. Rarely, a skin biopsy is performed to rule out other skin conditions. However, dermatitis—especially seborrheic dermatitis—can be difficult to distinguish from psoriasis. In children who are unlikely to have either cradle cap or dandruff, a sample may be cultured to identify a yeast or other responsible microorganism.
Self-help for dermatitis includes:
Other treatments for dermatitis include:
Cradle cap or dandruff in children can be treated by frequent shampooing with mild baby shampoo, followed by brushing with a soft brush to remove scales. Alternatively, mineral oil can be rubbed into the scalp to soften and loosen scales, followed by brushing or shampooing.
Dandruff in adults can be treated by vigorous daily shampooing with dandruff or antiseborrheic shampoos containing sulfur and salicylic acid * , selenium sulfide, ciclopirox, zinc pyrithione, or coal tar. Some dandruff shampoos remove flakes from the scalp or slow the rate of skin shedding, whereas others have antifungal agents such as ketoconazole. The lathered shampoo is left on for about five minutes before rinsing. Scalp creams containing cortisone are also available. Topical pyridoxine ointment (50 mg/g) can be used to treat seborrheic scales on the scalp, nose, brow, and around the mouth.
Scratching itches enables bacteria to further disrupt the skin's barrier function. Scratching can cause oozing and crusting of rashes, hardening and thickening of the skin, and open sores that may become infected. Skin infections can spread and, very rarely, become life threatening.
Avoiding known allergens and irritants and wearing gloves and protective clothing when exposure cannot be avoided can help prevent atopic and contact dermatitis. Common allergens include:
Common irritants to avoid include:
Avoiding dry skin can help minimize or prevent dermatitis flare-ups:
Other methods for preventing dermatitis include:
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MedlinePlus. “Eczema.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/eczema.html (accessed April 5, 2016).
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. “What Is Atopic Dermatitis?” http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Atopic_Dermatitis/atopic_dermatitis_ff.asp (accessed April 5, 2016).
American Academy of Dermatology. PO Box 4014, Schaumburg, IL 60168. Telephone: 847-240-1280. Toll-free: 866-503-SKIN (7546). Fax: 847-240-1859. Website: https://www.aad.org (accessed April 5, 2016).
National Eczema Association. 4460 Redwood Hwy., Ste. 16D, San Rafael, CA 94903. Telephone: 415-499-3474. Website: https://nationaleczema.org (accessed April 5, 2016).
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. NIAMS Information Clearinghouse, National Institutes of Health, 1 AMS Cir., Bethesda, MD 20892-3675. Telephone: 301-495-4484. Toll-free: 877-22-NIAMS (226-4267). Website: http://www.niams.nih.gov (accessed April 5, 2016).
See also Allergies • Skin Conditions: Overview
* allergies (AL-uhr-jeez) are immune system–related sensitivities to certain substances, such as pet dander or plant pollen.
* allergens (AL-uhr-jenz) are substances that provoke an immune-system response or hypersensitivity reaction.
* rashes are spotted, pink or red skin eruptions that may itch and are characteristic of dermatitis.
* asthma (AZ-mah) is a condition in which the airways of the lungs repeatedly narrow and become inflamed, causing breathing difficulties.
* hay fever, also called allergic rhinitis, is an acute allergic reaction to pollen that causes sneezing, runny nose, nasal congestion, and watery eyes.
* psoriasis (suh-RI-uh-sis) is an autoimmune skin condition marked by the buildup of dried, dead skin cells that form thick scales.
* over the counter refers to medications that can be bought without a prescription.
* corticosteroid (KOR-ti-ko-STERoid) is a medication such as hydrocortisone for reducing inflammation and suppressing the body's immune response.
* antihistamines (an-tie-HIS-tuhmeens) are drugs used to combat allergic reactions and relieve itching.
* salicylic acid is a pharmaceutical with antibacterial properties that is used to treat a variety of skin disorders.