Dermatitis Definition and Characterization

Dermatitis involves swelling and irritation of the skin

Girl scratching wrist
Girl scratching wrist. Getty Images/LEA PATERSON/Science Photo Library

Medical Specialties

Dermatology, Family practice, Internal medicine

Clinical Definition

Dermatitis is an umbrella term that describes an epidermal inflammation that can manifest as a range of skin irritations and rashes, ranging from mild to severe. 

In Our Own Words

There are several common types of dermatitis (i.e., an irritation of the skin that can manifest in redness, irritation, itchiness, and rashes), including contact dermatitis (both allergic and irritant); seborrheic dermatitis; and atopic dermatitis or eczema.

Contact dermatitis occurs when the skin touches an allergic reaction stimulus (i.e., allergic contact dermatitis, such as poison ivy), or when there is an injury to the surface of the skin (i.e., irritant contact dermatitis) caused by irritants such as detergents, soaps or chemicals. Seborrheic dermatitis includes two well-known conditions: dandruff and cradle cap. Finally, atopic dermatitis is a term sometimes used interchangeably with eczema, and it is in large part genetic (i.e., having to do with skin barrier function), most commonly found in families with a history of environmental allergies. It usually first appears in infants. Atopic dermatitis can get worse when the skin comes into contact with irritants such as rough, scratchy clothing.

Treatment of Dermatitis

The treatment of dermatitis varies depending on type.

  • Contact dermatitis is usually treated with strong topical steroids (topical means applied to the skin). Additionally, contact dermatitis can also be treated with steroids taken by mouth. Calamine lotion, which is characteristically pink and available over the counter, can also soothe the skin after contact with poison ivy, a common cause of contact dermatitis. 
  • Atopic dermatitis or eczema is acutely treated with the application of topical steroids to the affected area as well as the application of wet dressings to the affected area. Sometimes atopic dermatitis can balloon into a systemic bacterial infection that affects the entire body. In these cases, systemic therapy with antibiotics is needed. If you experience chronic or long-standing atopic dermatitis, ointments that dampen your immune response or immunosuppressive agents like tacrolimus and pimecrolimus can be used. Very rarely, super-potent steroids can be used to treat atopic dermatitis. Of note, if you experience atopic dermatitis, it's a good idea to avoid things that trigger this condition, such as perfumed products, strong soaps or detergents, and rough clothing. A bedroom humidifier may also help rehydrate your skin.
  • Seborrheic dermatitis in newborns (cradle cap) is effectively treated with low-potency steroid creams. Dandruff, another type of seborrheic dermatitis, is typically treated with medicated shampoos like Neutrogena T/Gel (which comes in regular or extra strength) or Nizoral. Both these medicated shampoos are available over the counter. More generally, seborrheic dermatitis is treated by increasing the water content of the skin and increasing the moisture of your ambient environment. Specifically, a house humidifier may prove helpful, and it's best to avoid over-bathing--take a shower or bath every 2 to 3 days instead of every day. Finally, skin moisturizers, including Lubriderm and Cetaphil, may also help increase the water content of your skin.


Cleveland Clinic. “Dermatitis.” 

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. “Handout on Health: Atopic Dermatitis (A type of eczema).” Updated May 2013. 

National Institutes of Health. “Contact dermatitis.” Updated November 2011. 

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