Eczema: Types and Possible Causes

Your body has been overtaken by itchy red patches of skin, and you are worried that you look like a kid with chicken pox. However, chances are much greater that you have some form of eczema – an inflammatory condition of the skin which is also known as dermatitis.

Understanding Eczema

The terms eczema and dermatitis are synonymous. This skin rash problem may occur without any known cause – in which case it is called an ‘endogenous’ eczema. This is frequently seen as atopic eczema in children, where it can be associated with asthma or rhinitis – forming the so called atopic syndrome.

Some children develop ‘infantile’ eczema in their early years. This is a transient condition and most patients grow out of it in time.

In most sufferers of endogenous eczema, stress, tension or psychological trauma often aggravate the skin rash, and tranquilizers are frequently used.

At other times, eczema may be caused by external factors and the term ‘exogenous’ eczema is used to describe this group.

By far, the most common form is contact eczema (or dermatitis). This is frequently seen as nickel or chrome dermatitis, eczemarubber dermatitis, or as a complication of some creams applied to the body e.g. antibiotic creams like neomycin.

The increasing use of chemicals in industry has contributed to an awareness of this condition especially among workers, and in many industrialized countries today, industrial dermatitis is a notifiable condition. Finding out the cause involves good detective work and ‘patch testing’, using a battery of chemicals. This is the most reliable method of tracing the incriminating compound. Removal of the culprit from the environment frequently results in cure.

Types of Dermatitis and Their Possible Causes

Seborrheic dermatitis

If you often avoid wearing black shirts because of embarrassing white flakes on your shoulders, you may have this condition. It is the medical name of what we usually called dandruff in adults or cradle cap in infants.

This type of dermatitis makes your skin look greasy and flaky, usually on the scalp. But it can sometimes affect the skin in other areas of the body, like face and chest. No one is sure what causes seborrheic dermatitis, but it is fairly common and easy to treat with special dandruff shampoos.

Atopic dermatitis

This condition is also called atopic eczema. It is a kind of allergic skin condition that tends to be inherited. If other members of your family have the same kind of itching, crusty, thickened areas of skin as you, atopic dermatitis may be the cause. It usually occurs on the face, upper chest, and neck, or on knees, elbows, wrists and ankles.

Dermatitis herpetiformis

Intense itching accompanies patches of tiny red blisters in this chronic disease. It usually develops in adulthood and may be connected to celiac sprue disease. Celiac sprue involves an allergy to gluten, which is found in many wheat products. Avoiding products that contain gluten may be the key to controlling this type of dermatitis.


Certain substances can make you more sensitive to sunlight, causing this type of skin problem. These photosensitizers include certain drugs, perfumes, cosmetics and plants.

If you are sensitive to sunlight, avoid going outside between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun is strongest and always protect your skin with sunscreen.

Contact dermatitis

As the name suggests, you have to touch an irritating substance to get this type of dermatitis. You usually don’t react immediately, but one to three days afterwards, your skin may become red, itchy and blistered. A good example is poison ivy.

If your skin is sensitive, you may also react to certain metals such as nickel, chrome and mercury.

Other problems include cosmetics, especially permanent hair dyes that contain paraphenylenediamine, and some types of medicated creams or ointments.

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