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What is Dermatitis?

Dermatitis is a general term that describes an inflammation of the skin. There are different types of dermatitis, due to both endogenous (internal) and exogenous (external) causes.  This disorder usually involves swollen, reddened, flaky and itchy skin.

Dermatitis is a common condition that is neither life-threatening nor contagious, but it can make the patient feel uncomfortable and self-conscious.

A combination of self-care steps and medications can help to treat dermatitis.


There are several types of dermatitis, including:

  • Contact dermatitis: An eruption that results from either single or repeated contact with irritants or allergens
  • Neurodermatitis: A chronic itchy skin condition localized to certain areas of the skin, often due to repeated picking and scratching of the skin, sometimes involuntarily.
  • Seborrheic dermatitis: A common scalp condition that results in dandruff, scalp oiliness and itch.
  • Stasis dermatitis: A skin condition that's caused by a build-up of fluid under the skin of the legs, as a result of poor venous circulation
  • Atopic dermatitis: More commonly known as endogenous eczema or atopic eczema, a chronic recurrent itchy rash that has a strong association with asthma, allergic rhinitis and familial inheritance.
  • Perioral dermatitis: An eruption around the mouth consisting of reddened bumps, often due to previous application of potent topical steroids on the face
Each type has distinct signs and symptoms. Common signs and symptoms include:
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Itching
  • Skin lesions
  • Excoriations
When to seek medical advice

See your doctor if:

  • You're so uncomfortable with the condition that it affects your quality of life
  • Your skin becomes painful
  • You suspect your skin is infected
  • You've tried self-care steps without success
Treatment and drugs

Dermatitis treatment varies, depending on the cause and severity

  • Contact dermatitis. Treatment consists primarily of identifying the cause of the rash and then avoiding it. Topical steroid creams with or without wet dressings may help relieve redness and itching.
  • Neurodermatitis. Getting the patient to stop scratching and to avoid further aggravating the skin are the treatment objectives. This may involve covering the affected area to prevent the patient from scratching it. Topical steroid creams with or without wet dressings may help relieve redness and itching. Antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications are helpful for some people. Also, counselling can help patients to understand how emotions and behaviours can fuel  or prevent  itching and scratching.
  • Seborrheic dermatitis. Medicated shampoos are usually the first treatment choice. Commonly used shampoos contain tar, pyrithione zinc, salicylic acid or ketoconazole as the active ingredient. Topical steroid lotions and solutions can be used to reduce inflammation.
  • Stasis dermatitis. Treatment consists of correcting the condition that causes fluid to accumulate in the legs or ankles for extended periods. This may mean wearing elastic support hose, or even having varicose vein surgery. Topical steroid creams with or without wet dressings may help relieve redness and itching. If a secondary skin infection develops, this too may require treatment.
  • Atopic dermatitis. Treatment typically depends on the severity of the condition. Moisturizers are the mainstay first line treatment in very mild cases or infants, and also may help prevent recurrences. Topical steroid creams with or without wet dressings may help relieve redness and itching. If the itching is severe, the doctor may suggest taking antihistamines. For more severe cases, phototherapy, oral steroids and oral immunosuppressive medications may be required. The doctor will assess the patient’s condition and advise accordingly. 
  • Perioral dermatitis. Treatment for this condition is usually with oral tetracycline antibiotics. Patients may need to continue this treatment for several months to prevent a recurrence. The doctor may also prescribe certain topical medications such as calcineurin inhibitors eg Protopic, Elidel.
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