Dermatitis and inflammatory skin conditions
Managing dermatitis and other inflammatory skin conditions

Having healthy skin is something many of us take for granted – but for the thousands of New Zealander's who suffer from dermatitis-type skin conditions the reality is very different. Coping with itchy, painful and inflamed skin on a daily basis can have a huge impact on the way you live your life.

The skin is the largest organ in the human body and the one responsible for protecting us against bacteria and infection. Dermatitis-affected skin means that this protection mechanism is compromised, leaving internal organs, muscles and bones open to infection.

Types of dermatitis

There are many different types of dermatitis, but nearly all present themselves with similar symptoms: redness, swelling and itching. The most common types of dermatitis are:

  • Contact dermatitis . This conditions occurs when the skin comes into contact with an irritating substance. The reaction is usually confined to the area of the body that was in contact with the specific substance.
  • Atopic dermatitis, also known as eczema. Probably the most common form of dermatitis worldwide, it can be caused by a specific substance or it can be inherited, but often the cause is unknown. Some environmental factors can make eczema worse such as weather and household chemicals.
  • Seborrhoeic dermatitis. This is an inflammatory reaction on the scalp and face and other areas with large oil glands. Cradle cap is a form of seborrhoeic dermatitis that occurs in newborns.

Associated infections

People who suffer from dermatitis are susceptible to other viral and bacterial skin conditions – such as impetigo (school sores), the Herpes simplex virus (cold sores) and warts. This is because the skin is often broken, allowing germs to enter the body.

Preventing infection is very important, and there are several things you can do to minimise your chances of contracting an infection:

  • Well-moisturised skin helps to control itching and prevents skin from breaking or cracking.
  • Short fingernails reduce the chance of breaking the skin when scratching.
  • Soap-free products, and clothing made from 100% cotton will help to minimise itch and aggravation.

Treatment of skin conditions

The ways of treating dermatitis depend on the type and severity of the condition. Many treatments have significant side-effects making it important to discuss a treatment plan with your doctor before trying any of the following options:

Creams

  • Emollients (or unperfumed moisturisers) provide essential moisture to the skin. They are designed for daily usage and are available over the counter.
  • Anti-inflammatory creams – many contain steroids and are available by doctor's prescription only. Over-use can result in a thinning of the skin, so always follow the directions enclosed.
  • Coal tar – can reduce the itch associated with skin conditions but can also cause an allergic reaction, extreme care must be taken when using this product

Oral medicines

  • Antihistamines – effectively reduce itching and are generally available over the counter. Side effects may include drowsiness. Not suitable for use in children under 12 months of age.
  • Steroids – short courses of this type of medicine are only necessary for extreme cases. Careful monitoring by doctor is required.
  • Cyclopsorin – only used in severe cases due to serious side-effects. This medicine works by suppressing the immune system which leaves the body open to infections of all kinds. This medication is also known to induce high blood pressure and kidney problems.

Other treatments

  • Evening Primrose oil – can be a very effective natural treatment. Those people who respond well to evening primrose oil may be able to avoid taking medications.
  • Phototherapy – in effect, this is treatment using ultraviolet radiation. Exposure to UV light can increase your chances of getting skin cancer so careful monitoring is essential.

It is extremely difficult to cure dermatitis - but careful management and a well-designed treatment plan can ensure that symptoms are reduced.

Related skin articles

This article was written by Jo Harris for Kidspot, New Zealand’s best family health resource. Sources include Better Health Channel, Australian College of Dermatologists and Eczema Association of Australasia.

Last revised: Wednesday, 17 September 2014

This article contains general information only and is not intended to replace advice from a qualified health professional.