Dermatitis is the term most commonly used for a rash that is not caused by an infection.  This name is given to a wide variety of adverse conditions of the skin, with the most common one being contact dermatitis. 

This condition is very widespread and can afflict people of all ages.  It is often a temporary condition which is resolved without medical assistance or treatment.  Some types of dermatitis are acute allergic reactions and others are chronic conditions.

Causes of Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis is caused by an inflammation of the skin as a result of an over-reaction to “contact” with an external substance of some kind.  Hay fever or asthma seems to increase the risk factor for atopic dermatitis, which is a chronic, itchy rash.  This condition is known to flare up due to common allergies such as dust mites, ragweed, pollen, molds, and animal hairs.  Scratching the skin can also bring on atopic dermatitis, and stress is thought to be an additional trigger.

Contact dermatitis is caused by touching an irritating substance or allergen, such as certain antibiotics, harsh soaps, detergents, the nickel in jewelry, some cosmetics, chemicals or irritating plants such as poison ivy. 

Dermatitis herptiformis is a chronic disease which results in clusters of painful, itchy bumps that form on the scalp, elbows, shoulders, knees and buttocks.  Individuals who are allergic to gluten (a protein which is found in wheat, rye and other grains) are more prone to this type of dermatitis.

Seborrhoeic dermatitis is a condition in which glands of the skin are the targets of the dermatitis.  In this chronic condition, the skin becomes red and oily and has a covering of dry, light flakes.  When it occurs on the scalp it is called dandruff, but this condition can also be found on the sides of the nose and on the eyebrows.

Symptoms of Dermatitis

Symptoms can include a burning sensation on the skin, with occasional skin cracks.  Red, itchy patches are common and some blistering and peeling can occur.  In many cases the troubled area can spread to other areas of the body.

How Dermatitis is Diagnosed

The skin’s appearance can determine whether dermatitis is present, as well as careful documentation of any patterns of exposure to irritants or allergens and the resulting skin conditions.  When the dermatitis is chronic and seems to be caused by an allergy, a health care practitioner may decide to perform a patch test of the skin to see what potential allergens are causing the reaction.

Dermatitis Treatment

Soothing topical lotions can be used, as well as oral medication to help prevent flare-ups and to relieve the symptoms of dermatitis.  Cold compresses may help by temporarily reducing inflammation of the skin and relieving some of the itching.  Oatmeal baths are particularly soothing and can be used for rashes which cover a large body area.

Topical steroid creams have long been a treatment of choice for dermatitis.  These creams help reduce the itching and inflammation.  Immunomodulators are a new topical medication which reduce inflammation without the use of steroids.

When topical medications do not seem to have a positive effect, oral antihistamines may be recommended.  The use of oral steroids can also help for short-term use and to help reduce inflammation which is particularly severe.  Long-term use of steroids can have several adverse effects and is not widely recommended.  When bacterial infections result as complications of dermatitis, antibiotics are often used.

Evening primrose oil supplements are frequently used in Asian countries as a standard treatment for dermatitis.  Some researchers believe the use of probiotics (supplements or foods which contain beneficial bacteria) may help reduce the severity and occurrence of dermatitis.

Try eating fresh foods and omit prawns, beef, lamb, and chili peppers as these items may interfere with herbal treatments and increase the heat in the body.  If gluten is the problem, try not to eat wheat, rye, oats and barley.  After six weeks has passed, add one food at a time back into the diet and see if any changes are evident in the dermatitis condition. 

Vitamin E at 400 IU per day can be helpful to relieve itchiness and dryness.  Vitamin A is known to be essential for good skin and can aid in skin dryness.  Zinc (30 mg) can be taken three times per day to raise immunity and aid in the healing of the skin.   Burdock root (500 g capsules) taken three times daily can be used to detoxify the skin.  Applied topically, woodruff and witch hazel are often appropriate treatments.

Prevention of Dermatitis

There are many ways to reduce or the severity of dermatitis or even prevent it.  Mothers who breast feed their babies reduce the infant’s risk for developing dermatitis during their lifetime.  Delaying solids foods until a baby is four months old or older can also help prevent dermatitis.

Once a diagnosis is made and the substance causing the reaction is discovered, avoiding that substance is the simplest course of action.   The following measures can also be taken to help prevent the onset of dermatitis:

  • Avoid plants which are known to irritate the skin, such as poison ivy, poison sumac, poison oak and nettles.

  • Do not let the skin become too dry.  This can help promote atopic dermatitis and can be avoided by using moisturizer several times daily.  Do not take long, hot baths or showers as this dries the skin.

  • When using harsh chemical such as ammonia , protect the hands by wearing plastic gloves.

  • Ensure the humidity level in the home is adequate.  Air which is too dry can lead to dermatitis.

  • If the skin itches, scratch it very lightly to avoid bringing on dermatitis.  Relieve the itching sensation by using a cool compress or lotion.

  • Wear clothing which is loose fitting to avoid irritating the skin.

  • Regular exercise, yoga, meditation, and guided imagery can help control the stress which causes dermatitis.

Who is at Risk

Individuals who are at greatest risk for dermatitis include infants and those who have sensitive skin, a history of allergies, stress, exposure to irritating plants or exposure to irritating chemicals or soaps.


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