Dermatitis refers to inflammation of the skin in general. Conversely, eczema refers to a group of conditions where the skin is inflamed. Some people may use the terms interchangeably.

Eczema may cause regular skin infections. People with the condition tend to have dry, itchy, and inflamed skin.

In contrast, dermatitis refers to skin inflammation, and some types include:

Atopic dermatitis is the most common type of dermatitis.

Image of a person's hand reaching into a body of waterShare on Pinterest
robert reader/Getty Images

Eczema is always a type of dermatitis, but dermatitis is not always eczema. Many people use atopic dermatitis and eczema interchangeably.

Atopic dermatitis presents similar symptoms to other types of dermatitis. For example, all types of the condition present with inflamed skin.

Dermatitis may be acute (short term) or chronic (long term). Atopic dermatitis is always a chronic condition, though it can cause acute skin lesions. In contrast, eczema, or a chronic dermatitis condition, causes the following clinical features:

Dermatitis can be exogenous if the cause is external or endogenous if the condition results from factors within a person’s body. Eczema refers to certain types of endogenous dermatitis, as it may result from an immune response, but its triggers can be external.

The main difference between dermatitis and eczema is that the former refers to any skin inflammation that affects the epidermis, the outermost layer of skin. Eczema refers to certain chronic types of dermatitis.

Types of dermatitis differ according to three main factors:

  • triggers
  • clinical appearance
  • location on body

A combination of genetic and environmental factors causes people to have dermatitis, but factors that trigger symptoms vary. For example, dermatitis can be photosensitive if people are sensitive to sunlight.

In the case of eczema, irritants or allergens cause the immune system to produce a response, which causes symptoms to flare up on the surface of the skin.

Dermatitis can appear in different forms, while eczema tends to appear as a rash. However, it can also produce circular lesions, for example, in discoid eczema.

Dermatitis can also affect different areas of the body. For example, it may occur on the:

  • hands
  • feet
  • eyelids
  • lower legs

As with dermatitis generally, there are different types of eczema with different triggers, appearances, and locations on the body. A person may experience multiple different types of eczema.

Seborrhoeic dermatitis is a common type of eczema that affects the skin on the head, such as the face or scalp, but it can also develop in other skin creases. It typically occurs in response to yeast collecting on the skin.

Chronic superficial scaly dermatitis also produces patches of eczema. These are typically round or oval and occur on a person’s torso.

There are types of eczema that can be less specific. For example, discoid eczema refers to patches of round or disk shapes.

Some conditions do not technically classify as types of eczema, but people with eczema are more susceptible to developing them.

Eczema herpeticum is an infection that stems from atopic dermatitis, developing other types of eczema, and contracting herpes simplex virus-1. The condition causes fever and fatigue, and large blisters develop all over the body.

Similarly, people with atopic dermatitis are also susceptible to developing eczema cosackium if they contract coxsackievirus A16. This infection causes widespread abrasions and blisters to develop in areas that atopic dermatitis has previously affected.

Both eczema herpeticum and eczema cosackium may lead to serious complications, including meningitis.

When treating and preventing dermatitis, there are three main principles:

  • identify and avoid potential allergens
  • identify and avoid potential irritants
  • use personal protective equipment, such as gloves, to protect the skin

Determining the allergens and irritants that cause eczema is important when managing the condition, as minimizing exposure to these triggers reduces the chances of flare-ups.

The first-line forms of eczema treatment are topical medications and skin hydration therapy. Topical medications may include:

Ointments may be more effective than creams as the high oil content helps to retain hydration. Healthcare professionals recommend using products without any fragrances.

Other examples of eczema treatment include:

A person should speak with a doctor who can recommend the best treatment for their dermatitis. Treatment may vary depending on the type of dermatitis they are experiencing and its severity.

Below are some of the most common questions and answers about eczema and dermatitis.

What are the types of dermatitis?

There are two overarching categories of dermatitis, which are exogenous and endogenous.

Exogenous dermatitis results from external triggers and may include allergic contact dermatitis and photosensitive dermatitis.

Endogenous dermatitis results from interactions within the body. The exact cause is often unclear. Examples include seborrhoeic dermatitis and discoid dermatitis.

What may trigger eczema and dermatitis?

Examples of allergens and irritants that may trigger dermatitis include:

Does dermatitis go away?

Some forms of dermatitis are acute, meaning they only last for a short period. However, others are chronic, meaning the underlying condition remains even when symptoms go away.

Avoiding triggers and maintaining skin hydration may help manage dermatitis symptoms.

People often use the terms dermatitis and eczema interchangeably, but the terms mean two different things.

Dermatitis is an umbrella term for inflammatory skin conditions that cause changes in the epidermis. All types of eczema are dermatitis, but not all types of dermatitis are eczema.

Atopic dermatitis is the most common form of dermatitis. The exact cause is often unclear, but it develops due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Symptoms develop in response to triggers which may be allergens or irritants.

Eczema can appear on different areas of the body and can take different forms, ranging from small, disk-like lesions to large rashes.

The best way to reduce eczema flare-ups is to identify and avoid triggers. To manage symptoms, a person may use topical anti-inflammatory and hydrating products following a doctor’s advice.