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.

What Is Dermatitis?

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

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 *

Normal skin and skin with dermatitis.

Normal skin and skin with dermatitis.

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

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

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:

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.

Can Dermatitis Be Prevented?

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:


Books and Articles

Rudikoff, Donald, Steven R. Cohen, and Noah Scheinfeld, eds. Atopic Dermatitis and Eczematous Disorders. Boca Raton, FL: CRC, 2014.

Sanders, Lisa. “Irrational Rash,” New York Times Magazine (May 25, 2014): 18, 20.

Van Bever, Hugo, and MarcieMom. Living with Eczema: Mom Asks, Doc Answers! Hackensack, NJ: World Scientific, 2014.


Mayo Clinic Staff. “Dermatitis.” Mayo Clinic. (accessed April 13, 2016).

MedlinePlus. “Eczema.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. (accessed April 5, 2016).

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. “What Is Atopic Dermatitis?” (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: (accessed April 5, 2016).

National Eczema Association. 4460 Redwood Hwy., Ste. 16D, San Rafael, CA 94903. Telephone: 415-499-3474. Website: (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: (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.

Disclaimer:   This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.

(MLA 8th Edition)