The terms dermatitis and eczema often get used interchangeably. It is true that eczema is a type of dermatitis, but dermatitis refers to something much broader. “It's any inflammation of the skin,” said Dr. Steven Armus, a dermatologist with Great Lakes Dermatology. Eczema, which is also known as atopic dermatitis, is one of the most common forms of dermatitis and a common reason patients seek dermatological treatment.
The condition often causes itchy, dry, red, scaly patches on flexural surfaces (such as the back of knees or the inner part of the arm), although it can form anywhere on the body. It can become quite uncomfortable, keeping people up at night and potentially leading to infection of the affected skin. The rash often gets considerably worse in the winter and better in the summer. Patients with atopic dermatitis usually have a background of asthma, allergy or hay fever, Dr. Armus said. “This is a condition that can start anytime in life, from very young to very old,” Dr. Armus said, adding that young kids may outgrow it but usually have sensitive skin issues throughout life."Patients with atopic dermatitis should use moisturizers and mild cleansers, like Dove or Oil of Olay. If that doesn't completely address the condition, a dermatologist can prescribe corticosteroid ointments, Dr. Armus said. The vast majority of patients respond to the topical steroid ointments, but some may need oral steroids, ultraviolet light treatments and, in some cases, treatment for secondary infections, he said.
Another common type of dermatitis is contact dermatitis, where a reaction occurs because of exposure to certain environmental allergens. This can often become a workplace issue, involving worker's compensation claims and work restrictions to avoid the allergen. Reactions can range from scaly rashes and swelling to oozing skin and infections. In some cases, the rash can become quite serious and systemic, affecting the mouth and breathing.“Those people have to avoid contact with that irritant at all costs,” Dr. Armus said.
Rashes from poison ivy are a form of contact dermatitis. It's the body's reaction to a toxin in the plant – anywhere a rash or blister formed, some of the toxin got on the skin. “Everybody who comes in contact with poison ivy over time will react at some point,” Dr. Armus said. In the beginning, there might not be a reaction; it might occur two weeks later, he said. And as you contact it more and more, the reaction will come quicker and quicker. Treatment involves topical or oral corticosteroids. If a person has a rash from poison ivy, it's not contagious – only the plant's toxin causes a reaction. Also, Dr. Armus noted that patients in Wisconsin don't really have to worry about poison oak, which is virtually non-existent in the state. And poison sumac is something folks would encounter only in swampy areas. If contact occurs with poison ivy, washing off the toxins within a half hour can help diminish a reaction. Dr. Armus warns to be careful with clothing that contacted the plant; it can still carry the toxin.
One other contact dermatitis to note is phototoxic dermatitis, which involves exposure to an allergen or irritant that is activated by sunlight. Certain plants, fruits and vegetables, parsley, cologne, and perfumes contain furocoumarins, which can cause rashes and blisters when on the skin and exposed to sunlight. Certain drugs can also lead to phototoxic dermatitis.
To see a doctor at Great Lakes Dermatology about dermatitis or any other skin condition, call 800-227-5135.
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