What Causes Dermatitis?

Medically reviewed by Cynthia Cobb, DNP, APRN on October 4, 2018 Written by MaryAnn DePietro

Dermatitis is a general term for skin inflammation. The skin will typically look dry, swollen, and red. The condition can have many causes, but it’s not contagious. Dermatitis can be uncomfortable for some. How itchy your skin may feel can range... Read More

What is dermatitis?

Dermatitis is a general term for skin inflammation. The skin will typically look dry, swollen, and red. The condition can have many causes, but it’s not contagious.

Dermatitis can be uncomfortable for some. How itchy your skin may feel can range from mild to severe. Certain types of dermatitis can last a long time, while others may flare up, depending on the season, exposures, or stress.

Some types are more common in children, and others are more common in adults. You may find relief from dermatitis with medications and topical creams.

Contact your doctor for an appointment if your skin is infected, painful, or uncomfortable, or if your dermatitis is widespread or isn’t getting better.

What are the symptoms of dermatitis?

The symptoms of dermatitis range from mild to severe and will look different depending on what part of the body is affected. Not all people with dermatitis experience all symptoms.

In general, the symptoms of dermatitis may include:

  • rashes
  • blisters
  • dry, cracked skin
  • itchy skin
  • painful skin, with stinging or burning
  • redness
  • swelling

Types of dermatitis

There are several different types of dermatitis. These are the most common:

Atopic dermatitis

Atopic dermatitis, or eczema, is usually inherited and develops during infancy. Someone with eczema likely has rough patches of dry, itchy skin.

Contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis happens when a substance touches your skin and causes an allergic reaction or irritation. These reactions can develop further into rashes that burn, sting, itch, or blister.

Dyshidrotic dermatitis

In dyshidrotic dermatitis, the skin can’t protect itself, resulting in itchy, dry skin, often with small blisters. This occurs mainly on the feet and hands.

Seborrheic dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis, also known as cradle cap in babies, is most common on the scalp. It can cause scaly patches, red skin, and dandruff, and it can also occur on other areas of the skin, like the face or chest.

Other types of dermatitis include the following:

  • Neurodermatitis involves an itchy patch often triggered by stress or something irritating the skin.
  • Nummular dermatitis involves oval sores on the skin and often occurs after injury to the skin.
  • Stasis dermatitis involves skin changes due to poor blood circulation.

What causes dermatitis?

The causes of dermatitis vary depending on the type. Some types, like dyshidrotic eczema, neurodermatitis, and nummular dermatitis, may have unknown causes.

Contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis occurs when you come in direct contact with an irritant or allergen. Common materials that cause allergic reactions include detergents, cosmetics, nickel, poison ivy, and oak.


Eczema is caused by a combination of factors like dry skin, environmental setting, and bacteria on the skin. It’s often genetic, as people with eczema often have a family history of eczema, allergies, or asthma.

Seborrheic dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis is likely caused by a fungus in the oil glands. It tends to get worse in the spring and winter. This type of dermatitis also appears to be genetic for some people.

Stasis dermatitis

Stasis dermatitis occurs due to poor circulation in the body, most commonly the lower legs and feet.


The trigger is what causes your skin to have a reaction. It could be a substance, your environment, or something happening in your body.

Common triggers for dermatitis that cause symptoms to flare include:

  • stress
  • hormonal changes
  • the environment
  • irritating substances

What are the risk factors for dermatitis?

Factors that increase your chances of getting dermatitis include:

  • age
  • the environment
  • a family history of dermatitis
  • health conditions
  • allergies
  • asthma

Some factors increase your risk for certain types of dermatitis more than others. For example, frequent washing and drying of hands will strip your skin’s protective oils and change its pH balance. This is why healthcare workers typically have hand dermatitis.

How is dermatitis diagnosed?

Your doctor will perform a physical exam and discuss your medical history before making a diagnosis. In some cases, a dermatologist can diagnose the type of dermatitis just by looking at the skin.

If there’s reason to suspect you might have an allergic reaction to something, your doctor might do a skin patch test. You can also ask for one yourself. In a skin patch test, your doctor will put small amounts of different substances on your skin. After a few days, they’ll check for reactions and determine what you may or may not be allergic to.

In some cases, your dermatologist may perform a skin biopsy to help figure out the cause. A skin biopsy involves your doctor removing a small sample of the skin, which is then looked at under a microscope.

Other tests can be done on the skin sample to help determine the cause of your eczema.

How is dermatitis treated?

Treatments for dermatitis depend on the type, severity of symptoms, and the cause. Your skin may clear up on its own after one to three weeks.

If it doesn’t, your doctor or dermatologist may recommend:

  • medications to reduce allergies and itching, like the antihistamine diphenhydramine
  • phototherapy, or exposing affected areas to controlled amounts of light
  • topical creams with a steroid, like hydrocortisone, to relieve itchiness and inflammation
  • creams or lotions for dry skin
  • oatmeal baths to relieve itching

Antibiotics or antifungal medications are usually given only if an infection has developed. Infections can occur when the skin is broken due to intense scratching.

Home care for dermatitis may include applying cool, wet cloths to the skin to reduce itching and discomfort. You can try adding baking soda to a cool bath to help reduce symptoms. If your skin is broken, you can cover the wound with a dressing or bandage to prevent irritation or infection.

Dermatitis can sometimes flare up when you’re stressed. Alternative therapies like acupuncture, massage, and yoga can be helpful in reducing stress.

Dietary changes, like eliminating foods that trigger a reaction, may help you manage eczema symptoms. In some cases, dietary supplements, like vitamin D and probiotics can help as well.

How is dermatitis prevented?

Awareness is the first step in avoiding dermatitis. The only way to prevent an allergic reaction is to avoid contact with allergens or substances that cause rashes, like poison ivy. But if you have eczema, which isn’t always preventable, your best option is to prevent a flare-up of symptoms.

Try to avoid scratching the affected area. Scratching can open or reopen wounds and spread the bacteria to another part of your body.

Another way to prevent dry skin is by taking shorter baths, using mild soaps, and using warm instead of hot water. Most people also find relief by moisturizing frequently.

The University of Michigan recommends using water-based moisturizers after washing hands and oil-based moisturizers for extremely dry skin.

What is the outlook for people with dermatitis?

While dermatitis isn’t considered a serious medical condition, scratching hard or too often can lead to open sores and infections. These can spread, but they rarely become life-threatening.

You can prevent or control potential flare-ups with treatment. It might take some time to figure out the right treatment for you, and you may try a combination of things, like medication and avoiding irritants.

Medically reviewed by Cynthia Cobb, DNP, APRN on October 4, 2018 Written by MaryAnn DePietro

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose. Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.

Medically reviewed by Cynthia Cobb, DNP, APRN on October 4, 2018 Written by MaryAnn DePietro