What is dermatitis?
Inflammation of the skin is it’s way of reacting to an irritant or allergen (something that causes an allergic reaction) and can occur anywhere in the body, although it is most common on the face, elbows, wrists, arms and knees, where the skin is at its thinnest.
Causes and triggers
The cause of dermatitis can be obvious as the reaction can be related to a specific substance like perfume, washing powder, a solvent or glue and the reaction is usually restricted to the area of contact. Sometimes the cause is a combination of factors, including genetic inheritance, allergy exacerbated by environmental changes, humidity or temperature. Scratching makes it worse, setting up an itch-scratch-itch cycle because scratching releases histamine, a chemical involved in allergic reactions.
Common forms of dermatitis
Prevention and treatment
Dermatitis is not infectious and once identified it can be treated.
1. Identify the cause
Unless you know the cause of your dermatitis it is difficult to treat, so finding the cause is important. Think about what you have been doing and where. Many cases of dermatitis are occupational, so consider work-related chemicals and latex gloves. Have you started using a new soap or washing powder? Does it occur after working in the garden? If you suspect a cosmetic or a perfume, test it on another area of skin and see if you get the same response. The location of the rash on your body may provide a clue to its cause, such as under a watch strap containing chrome or nickel – a common culprit.
2. Avoid the source
If you are able to identify the problem, try to avoid it. Change the brand or use a soap-free cleanser. Remove yourself physically where possible; if not, wear protective clothing, such as gloves or use a barrier cream. If you accidentally make contact with the problem substance, wash it off immediately after contact. Avoid dry skin by keeping water contact to a minimum and avoiding soap and detergents. Apply creams and ointments containing oil – these are better than lotions that are more water based. Clothing is important, avoid rough and synthetic fabrics and look out for central heating in winter.
3. Skin testing
If identifying the cause of your dermatitis is proving difficult consult your medical practitioner who may refer you for a patch test. This involves applying a range of substances directly to the skin under a piece of tape or gauze and then looking for a reaction after 48 hours, or longer, depending on the substance. Patch testing can be hit-and-miss and depends on the “right” allergen being tested.
4. Creams and ointments
5. Manage your dermatitis
Dermatitis, particularly eczema, can be a long-term problem, so it is important to manage it in your daily life. Look after your skin, keep it moisturised and avoid known irritants or allergens, where possible. Always be vigilant so that you can recognise and treat symptoms as soon as they appear, to prevent them worsening and risking infection. You may wish to try an alternative approach such as visit a naturopath, who will discuss your diet and lifestyle to address any issues you may not have uncovered before.
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