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Eczema vs dermatitis Q&A: What’s really causing your dry, itchy skin?

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Summary

1Are eczema and dermatitis the same thing?

The two terms are often used interchangeably and any distinction between the two is subtle.

2First things first, what is eczema?

Eczema describes a range of medical conditions that cause skin to become irritated, inflamed, scaly, red, itchy, or dry. It’s non-contagious.

3So, how would you explain dermatitis?

What is dermatitis? Think of it as a medical term to describe extremely dry, itchy skin. it’s important to say that not all dry skin is dermatitis.

Eczema or dermatitis? Is there a definitive answer to whether these two skin conditions are actually this same thing? Eczema is a term that’s used liberally for almost any patch of dry, itchy skin. But how much do we actually understand about this common condition? And should we really be saying dermatitis?

Are eczema and dermatitis the same thing?

The two terms are often used interchangeably and any distinction between the two is subtle. Think of eczema as a general term for a range of inflammatory skin diseases, with some dermatitis conditions falling under this umbrella.

First things first, what is eczema?

Eczema describes a range of medical conditions that cause skin to become irritated or inflamed. It’s non-contagious and commonly shows up in the form of scaly, red, dry, itchy skin. But in more severe cases, weeping, crusting and bleeding add extra discomfort. 

However, there are many causes of eczema and a lot of different variations of the condition. And it's when you get into the types of eczema and its causes, that you’ll probably start to hear dermatitis mentioned more.

So, how would you explain dermatitis?

First of it, if you’re looking for an answer to what is dermatitis, think of it as a medical term to describe extremely dry, itchy skin. Although it’s important to point out that not all dry skin is dermatitis. 

There are times when we can all expect our skin to show signs of lacking moisture. This applies whether we suffer from eczema or not. For example, cold weather, harsh chemicals and excessive hand washing can all cause dry skin.

What are the main types of dermatitis and eczema?

There are lots of variants, based on what triggers the skin to react, age and where on the body it appears. Here are the six main types:

1. Atopic dermatitis

Atopic dermatitis is the most common type of eczema, causing a dry, red, itchy rash and sore, cracked skin. 

When people get atopic dermatitis it can lead to the skin’s protective barrier becoming weaker and less able to hold moisture. This causes dryness. With the skin’s sensitivity heightened, it may become more prone to infection. 

Atopic dermatitis is usually something people have to deal with long term, often from childhood. And if you have it, it may mean you’ve inherited the condition from your parents.
 

2. Contact dermatitis

With contact dermatitis, interaction with a particular substance causes the problem. 
This could be one of two things. An irritant that causes damage to the outer layer of skin. Or alternatively, an allergen that triggers your immune system to react. 

Avoiding the substance identified to be the culprit usually leads to this form of eczema clearing up. Contact dermatitis is the cause.
 

3. Dyshidrotic eczema

Dyshidrotic eczema (sometimes called pompholyx) causes tiny blisters on fingers, hands and sometimes the soles of the feet. 

The exact causes aren't obvious. However, stress, heat, sweating and sensitivity to metal compounds are generally agreed to aggravate it.
 

4. Discoid eczema

Discoid eczema causes skin to become red, swollen and cracked in distinctive circular or oval patches. It’s can be extremely itchy. 

The exact cause isn’t known, but much like other dry skin conditions, it may be related to environmental triggers. So, look out for things that aggravate your skin.
 

5. Varicose eczema

You’ll tend to find this type of eczema on the lower legs, especially if you have varicose veins. Similar to other types of eczema, the affected area of skin becomes dry, flaky, itchy and swollen. 

It’s more common in the elderly and is linked to increased pressure in the veins of the legs and decreased circulation.
 

6. Seborrhoeic eczema

There are two main things that distinguish this type of eczema. First, its appearance. Dry flakes (dandruff), yellow, greasy scales and reddened skin are typical. And secondly, where it appears. 

Seborrheic dermatitis tends to emerge on areas of the body where there are a lot of sebaceous (oil-producing) glands. For example, the upper back, nose and scalp.
 

Is there anything I can do to prevent eczema?

If you suspect the cause of your dry skin is eczema (or dermatitis), it’s important to get a diagnosis from a healthcare professional. There are a whole range of options available to soothe your skin, as well as things you can do at home to limit future flare-ups.

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