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What is dermatitis?

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Are you experiencing unexplained skin symptoms such as dryness, itching and redness? You might have developed a common condition known as dermatitis.

About dermatitis

Dermatitis is a word meaning inflammation of the skin. It is used to describe a number of different conditions that affect the skin, causing itching, redness and dryness, and sometimes cracking and bleeding as well.

Dermatitis is another word for eczema, and certain types of dermatitis are more commonly referred to using this label. When most people use the word eczema, they’re talking about atopic eczema/dermatitis (an allergic condition related to the immune system).

Dermatitis causes

Dermatitis, or eczema, is a dry skin condition that can be caused by a variety of different things. In most cases, dermatitis symptoms arise due to a combination of factors, relating to the immune system, genetics, and environmental factors.

In some cases, dermatitis is simply caused by coming into contact with irritants in your environment – this is known as contact dermatitis.

It’s important to note that dermatitis is not contagious, which means you can't catch it from someone, or pass on your symptoms.

Types of dermatitis

As we’ve previously mentioned, there are many different types of dermatitis. In the UK, the most common type is atopic dermatitis, more commonly known as atopic eczema.

Atopic dermatitis

Atopic dermatitis is an allergic condition related to the immune system. In people with atopic dermatitis, the skin is very dry and unable to retain moisture. When triggered by certain allergens, such as pollen, dust, harsh soaps or animal fur, the skin can react and flare up, becoming dry, itchy, red and sore.

People who have atopic dermatitis typically live with other allergic conditions such as asthma, and hay fever.

Contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis is where skin symptoms are brought on by things in your environment. Your skin may react simply because it comes into contact with an irritant, or because over time you have developed an allergy to a specific substance or material. Anyone can experience contact dermatitis, but it’s more common in people with a history of atopic dermatitis/eczema.

Contact dermatitis is a common occupational health concern. It can be prevalent amongst people who work with harsh chemicals or hazardous materials.

Seborrhoeic dermatitis

Seborrhoeic dermatitis is a type of dermatitis that affects areas of the skin with a high quantity of sebaceous glands. These are the glands that create sebum, a lubricant that keeps the skin moist; they are found in high numbers on the scalp, face, neck, chest and back.

In people with seborrhoeic dermatitis, the skin in these areas can become inflamed, itchy, red, scaly and flaky. For many people the scalp is the first area affected – the first symptom you might notice is dandruff. In babies and young children, seborrhoeic dermatitis affecting the scalp is known as “cradle cap”.

It’s thought that seborrhoeic dermatitis is a caused by an “overreaction” to a certain type of yeast living on the skin.

Nummular dermatitis

Nummular dermatitis is more commonly known as discoid eczema. This is a condition where small, round sore patches develop on the skin. These patches can become very itchy and might crust over and ooze. Over time they can dry out and become flaky and dry – sometimes a red ring is left on the skin, which might be confused for ringworm.

Other types of dermatitis

Pompholyx or dyshidrotic dermatitis primarily affects the fingers and hands, causing small blisters to develop on the skin.

Asteatotic dermatitis, also known as eczema craquelée, results from having very dry skin, and primarily affects people over 60. This type of dermatitis has a crackled appearance. As it worsens the condition can lead to fissures or cracks developing in the skin.

How to treat dermatitis

Treatment for dermatitis varies depending upon the cause and severity of the symptoms.

If you have atopic dermatitis, you will usually need to manage your symptoms by applying emollients (intensely nourishing moisturisers) to your skin every day, and by using medicated creams and ointments when symptoms flare up.

Contact dermatitis and nummular dermatitis can be addressed in the same way as atopic dermatitis, while seborrhoeic dermatitis affecting the scalp can be treated with medicated shampoo.

Other treatments for dermatitis include:

  • Antihistamines to relieve itching in people with atopic dermatitis
  • Medicated bandages and wet wraps to moisturise and heal the skin, and prevent infection and itching

If your dermatitis symptoms are very severe, you may be referred to a dermatologist for a different type of treatment.

You can read more advice about skin conditions including eczema, psoriasis and acne on our blog.