Skin Disease: Eczema and Dermatitis


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The Skin Disease: Eczema and Dermatitis

Natural Skin Care Products by Wildcrafted Herbal Products

Natural skin care products by Wildcrafted Herbal Products

Natural skin care products by Wildcrafted Herbal Products


Itching and rashes may develop as the result of infection or irritation or from a reaction of the immune system. Some rashes occur mostly in children (see Problems in Infants and Very Young Children: Rashes), whereas others almost always occur in adults. Sometimes an immune reaction is triggered by substances a person touches or eats, but many times doctors do not know why the immune system reacts to produce a skin rash.

The diagnosis of most noninfectious skin rashes is based on the appearance of the rash. The cause of a rash cannot be determined by blood tests, and tests of any kind are rarely performed. However, persistent rashes, particularly those that do not respond to treatment, may lead the doctor to perform a skin biopsy, in which a small piece of skin is surgically removed for examination under a microscope. Also, if the doctor suspects a contact allergy as the cause, skin tests may be performed.

Topics covered include (click on the topic of Interest):

Skin Diseases: Eczema and Dermatitis

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Orthodox Medical View and Approach


Dermatitis (eczema) is inflammation of the upper layers of the skin, causing itching, blisters, redness, swelling, and often oozing, scabbing, and scaling.

Dermatitis is a broad term covering many different disorders that all result in a red, itchy rash. The term eczema is sometimes used for dermatitis. Some types of dermatitis affect only specific parts of the body, whereas others can occur anywhere. Some types of dermatitis have a known cause; others do not. However, dermatitis is always the skin's way of reacting to severe dryness, scratching, a substance that is causing irritation, or an allergen. Typically, that substance comes in direct contact with the skin, but sometimes the substance is swallowed. In all cases, continuous scratching and rubbing may eventually lead to thickening and hardening of the skin.

Dermatitis may be a brief reaction to a substance. In such cases it may produce symptoms, such as itching and redness, for just a few hours or a day or two. Chronic dermatitis persists over a period of time. The hands and feet are particularly vulnerable to chronic dermatitis, because the hands are in frequent contact with many foreign substances and the feet are in the warm, moist conditions created by socks and shoes that favor fungal growth.

Chronic dermatitis may represent a contact, fungal, or other dermatitis that has been inadequately diagnosed or treated, or it may be one of several chronic skin disorders of unknown origin, such as pompholyx (see Itching and Noninfectious Rashes: Pompholyx) or hyperkeratotic palmar eczema. Because chronic dermatitis produces cracks and blisters in the skin, any type of chronic dermatitis may lead to bacterial infection.


Contact Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis is skin inflammation caused by direct contact with a particular substance; the rash is very itchy, is confined to a specific area, and often has clearly defined boundaries.

Substances can cause skin inflammation by one of two mechanisms—irritation (irritant contact dermatitis) or allergic reaction (allergic contact dermatitis).

Irritant contact dermatitis occurs when a chemical substance causes direct damage to the skin. Typical irritating substances are acids, alkalis (such as drain cleaners), solvents (such as acetone in nail polish remover), and strong soaps. Some of these chemicals cause skin changes within a few minutes, whereas others require longer exposure. People vary in the sensitivity of their skin to irritants. Even very mild soaps and detergents may irritate the skin of some people after frequent or prolonged contact.

Allergic contact dermatitis is a reaction by the body's immune system to a substance contacting the skin. Sometimes a person can be sensitized by only one exposure, and other times sensitization occurs only after many exposures to a substance. After a person is sensitized, the next exposure causes itching and dermatitis within 4 to 24 hours, although some people, particularly older people, do not develop a reaction for 3 to 4 days.

Thousands of substances can result in allergic contact dermatitis. The most common include substances found in plants such as poison ivy, rubber (latex), antibiotics, fragrances, preservatives, and some metals (nickel, cobalt). About 10% of women are allergic to nickel, a common component of jewelry. People may use (or be exposed to) substances for years without a problem, then suddenly develop an allergic reaction. Even ointments, creams, and lotions used to treat dermatitis can cause such a reaction. People may also develop dermatitis from many of the materials they touch while at work (occupational dermatitis).

Sometimes contact dermatitis results only after a person touches certain substances and then exposes the skin to sunlight (photo-allergic or photo-toxic contact dermatitis). Such substances include sunscreens, aftershave lotions, certain perfumes, antibiotics, coal tar, and oils.

Common Causes of Allergic Contact Dermatitis

Hair-removing chemicals, nail polish, nail polish remover, deodorants, moisturizers, aftershave lotions, perfumes, sunscreens

Metal compound (in jewelry):

Poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, ragweed, primrose, thistle

Drugs in skin creams:
Antibiotics (sulfonamides, neomycin), antihistamines (diphenhydramine, promethazine), anesthetics (benzocaine), antiseptics (thimerosal), stabilizers

Chemicals used in clothing manufacturing:
in gloves, shoes, undergarments, other apparel

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Regardless of cause or type, contact dermatitis results in itching and a rash. The itching is usually severe, but the rash varies from a mild, short-lived redness to severe swelling and large blisters. Most commonly, the rash contains tiny blisters. The rash develops only in areas contacted by the substance. However, the rash appears earlier in thin, sensitive areas of skin, and later in areas of thicker skin or on skin that had less contact with the substance, giving the impression that the rash has spread. Touching the rash or blister fluid cannot spread contact dermatitis to other people or to other parts of the body that did not make contact with the substance.

Determining the cause of contact dermatitis is not always easy. Most people are unaware of all the substances that touch their skin. Often, the location of the initial rash is an important clue, particularly if it occurs under an item of clothing or jewelry or only in areas exposed to sunlight. However, many substances that people touch with their hands are unknowingly transferred to the face, where the more sensitive facial skin may react even if the hands do not.

If a doctor suspects contact dermatitis and a process of elimination does not pinpoint the cause, patch testing can be performed. For this test, small patches containing substances that commonly cause dermatitis are placed on the skin for 1 to 2 days to see if a rash develops beneath one of them. Although useful, patch testing is complicated. People may be sensitive to many substances, and the substance they react to on a patch may not be the cause of their dermatitis. A doctor must decide which substances to test based on what a person might have been exposed to.

Prevention and Treatment

Contact dermatitis can be prevented by avoiding contact with the causative substance. If contact does occur, the material should be washed off immediately with soap and water. If circumstances risk ongoing exposure, gloves and protective clothing may be helpful. Barrier creams are also available that can block certain substances, such as poison ivy and epoxy resins, from contacting the skin. Desensitization with injections or tablets of the causative substance is not effective in preventing contact dermatitis.

Treatment is not effective until there is no further contact with the substance causing the problem. Once the substance is removed, the redness usually disappears after a week. Blisters may continue to ooze and form crusts, but they soon dry. Residual scaling, itching, and temporary thickening of the skin may last for days or weeks.

Itching can be relieved with a number of topical or oral drugs (see Itching and Noninfectious Rashes: Treatment). In addition, small areas of dermatitis can be soothed by applying pieces of gauze or thin cloth dipped in cool water or aluminum acetate (Burow's solution) several times a day for an hour. Larger areas may be treated with short, cool tub baths with or without colloidal oatmeal. The doctor may drain fluid from large blisters, but the blister is not removed.

Poison Ivy Dermatitis

About 50 to 70% of people are sensitive to the plant oil urushiol contained in poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. Similar oils are also present in the shells of cashew nuts; the leaves, sap, and fruit skin of the mango; and Japanese lacquer. Once a person has been sensitized by contact with these oils, subsequent exposure produces a contact dermatitis.

The oils are quickly absorbed into the skin but may remain active on clothing, tools, and pet fur for long periods of time. Smoke from burning plants also contains the oil and may cause a reaction in certain people. Sensitivity to poison ivy tends to run in families.

Symptoms begin from 8 to 48 hours after contact and consist of intense itching, a red rash, and multiple blisters, which may be tiny or very large. Typically, the blisters occur in a straight line following the track where the plant brushed along the skin. The rash may appear at different times in different locations either because of repeat contact with contaminated clothing and other objects or because some parts of the skin are more sensitive than others. The blister fluid itself is not contagious. The itching and rash last for 2 to 3 weeks.

Recognition and avoidance of contact with the plants is the best prevention. A number of commercial barrier creams and lotions can be applied before exposure to minimize, but not completely prevent, absorption of oil by the skin. The oil can soak through latex rubber gloves. Washing of the skin with soap and water prevents absorption of the oil if done immediately. Stronger solvents, such as acetone, alcohol, and various commercial products, are probably no more effective. Desensitization with various shots or pills or by eating poison ivy leaves is not effective.

Treatment helps relieve symptoms but does not shorten the duration of the rash. The most effective treatment is with corticosteroids. Small areas of rash are treated with strong topical corticosteroids, such as triamcinolone, clobetasol, or diflorasone—except on the face and genitals, where only mild corticosteroids, such as 1% hydrocortisone, should be applied. People with large areas of rash or significant facial swelling are given high-dose corticosteroids taken by mouth. Cool compresses wet with water or aluminum acetate may be used on large blistered areas. Antihistamines given by mouth may help with itching. Lotions and creams containing antihistamines are seldom used.


Atopic Dermatitis

Atopic dermatitis is chronic, itchy inflammation of the upper layers of the skin that often develops in people who have hay fever or asthma and in people who have family members with these conditions.

Atopic dermatitis is one of the most common skin diseases, affecting 15 million people in the United States. Almost 66% of people with the disorder develop it before age 1, and 90% by age 5. In half of these people, the disorder will be gone by the teenage years; in others, it is lifelong.

Doctors do not know what causes atopic dermatitis, but people with it usually have many allergic disorders, particularly asthma, hay fever, and food allergies. The relationship between the dermatitis and these disorders is not clear; atopic dermatitis is not an allergy to a particular substance. Atopic dermatitis is not contagious.

Many conditions can make atopic dermatitis worse, including emotional stress, changes in temperature or humidity, bacterial skin infections, and contact with irritating clothing (especially wool). In some infants, food allergies may provoke atopic dermatitis.


Infants may develop red, oozing, crusted rashes on the face, scalp, diaper area, hands, arms, feet, or legs. Large areas of the body may be affected. In older children and adults, the rash often occurs (and recurs) in only one or a few spots, especially on the hands, upper arms, in front of the elbows, or behind the knees.
Although the color, intensity, and location of the rash vary, the rash always itches. The itching often leads to uncontrollable scratching, triggering a cycle of itching-scratching-itching that makes the problem worse. Scratching and rubbing can also tear the skin, leaving an opening for bacteria to enter and cause infections.

In people with atopic dermatitis, infection with the herpes simplex virus, which usually affects a small area with tiny, slightly painful blisters (see Viral Infections: Herpes Simplex Virus Infections), may produce a serious illness with widespread dermatitis, blistering, and high fever (eczema herpeticum).

Diagnosis and Treatment

A doctor makes the diagnosis based on the typical pattern of the rash and often on whether other family members have allergies.

No cure exists, but itching can be relieved with topical or oral drugs (see Itching and Noninfectious Rashes: Treatment). Certain other measures can help. Avoiding contact with substances known to irritate the skin or foods that the person is sensitive to can prevent a rash. The skin should be kept moist, either with commercial moisturizers or with petroleum jelly or vegetable oil. Moisturizers are best applied after bathing, while the skin is damp. To limit the use of corticosteroids in people being treated for long periods, doctors sometimes replace the corticosteroids with petroleum jelly for a week or more at a time. Corticosteroid tablets are a last resort for people with stubborn cases.

Phototherapy (exposure to ultraviolet light) often helps adults (see Phototherapy: Using Ultraviolet Light to Treat Skin Disorders). This treatment is rarely recommended for children because of its potential long-term side effects, including skin cancer and cataracts.

For severe cases, the immune system can be suppressed with cyclosporine taken by mouth or tacrolimus used as an ointment. Zafirlukast, a new oral drug used to prevent asthma attacks, may also be helpful in treating atopic dermatitis.


Seborrheic Dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis is chronic inflammation of unknown cause that causes scales on the scalp and face and occasionally on other areas.

Seborrheic dermatitis occurs most often in infants, usually within the first 3 months of life, and between the ages of 30 and 70. The disorder is more common in men, often runs in families, and is worse in cold weather. A form of seborrheic dermatitis also occurs in as many as 85% of people with AIDS.


Seborrheic dermatitis usually begins gradually, causing dry or greasy scaling of the scalp (dandruff), sometimes with itching but without hair loss. In more severe cases, yellowish to reddish scaly pimples appear along the hairline, behind the ears, in the ear canal, on the eyebrows, on the bridge of the nose, around the nose, on the chest, and on the upper back. In infants younger than 1 month of age, seborrheic dermatitis may produce a thick, yellow, crusted scalp rash (cradle cap) and sometimes yellow scaling behind the ears and red pimples on the face. Frequently, a stubborn diaper rash accompanies the scalp rash. Older children and adults may develop a thick, tenacious, scaly rash with large flakes of skin.


The scalp can be treated with a shampoo containing pyrithione zinc, selenium sulfide, an antifungal drug, salicylic acid and sulfur, or tar. The person usually uses the medicated shampoo every other day until the dermatitis is controlled and then twice weekly.

Ketoconazole cream is often effective as well. In adults, thick crusts and scales, if present, can be loosened with overnight application of corticosteroids or salicylic acid under a shower cap.

Often, treatment must be continued for many weeks; if the dermatitis returns after the treatment is discontinued, treatment can be restarted. Topical corticosteroids are also used on the head and other affected areas. On the face, only mild corticosteroids, such as 1% hydrocortisone, should be used. Even mild corticosteroids must be used cautiously, because long-term use can thin the skin and cause other problems.

In infants and young children who have a thick scaly rash on the scalp, salicylic acid in mineral oil can be rubbed gently into the rash with a soft toothbrush at bedtime. The scalp can also be shampooed daily with mild baby shampoo, and 1% hydrocortisone cream can be rubbed into the scalp.

Alternative / Traditional Medical View and Approach

Dermatitis and eczema are often confused, however, we have adopted the broad guidelines given in the Merck Manual and used these terms synonymously to indicate superficial inflammation of the skin.

Dermatologists do subdivide these terms and provide disease names for each of the subcategories within both eczema and dermatitis. However, this is of little relevance when viewing these conditions from a traditional (alternative) medical view point. The only important sub-division is between those cases where the cause is an internal (endogenous) one, as opposed to a contact or external (exogenous) cause. In exogenous cases it is possible to solve the problem by avoidance of the surface irritant, if it can be identified. Such problems, often referred to as Contact Dermatitis, are commonly caused by, for example:

  • industrial solvents, harsh soaps,
  • dyes,
  • nickel and other metals,
  • leather tanning chemicals,
  • plant materials

Eczema often accompanies other allergic diseases such as hay fever and asthma, but may also occur alone.

As described above, the rash is a very itchy, peeling, thickened, sometimes weepy area, typically noted in the creases of joints and about the trunk. The rash may fluctuate both seasonally and over the course of the day. Scratching may lead to bleeding and infection. Blood tests reveal increased levels of cells and chemicals associated with allergic reactions in general.

A variation of eczema occurs on the palms of the hands, and sometimes on the soles of the feet. This type may be quite frustrating, since the common exposure to moisture, irritants, and injury of these locations leads to self-perpetuation of the disease. Furthermore the thickness of the skin in these regions makes topical therapy more difficult.

A number of factors can aggravate eczema, although specifics will vary from person to person. These include:
  • stress
  • mechanical irritation
  • heat
  • dietary factors are important, especially in children. Milk and milk products are the most common triggers.

System Support
As with all diseases or disorders, traditional approaches to treatment always consider internal 'systemic' weaknesses or susceptibilities as well as the external problem. It is no different with skin disorders, except where the cause is of an obvious nature such as an in Contact dermatitis. Underlying problems with nervous system, digestive system, liver, immune system, etc. will need to be investigated and considered in the holistic approach to the treatment.

Specific Remedies
There are a number of Wildcrafted Herbal Products which may be of help in treating various forms of dermatitis. An approach of both internal and external therapy is usually the most successful.

    Internal: Wildcrafted's Alterative Compound and/or Liver Compound
    External: Natural Skin Care System for Sensitive Skin
    (NOTE: Please use on a small area of affected skin first to determine whether your skin will respond positively; If irritation persists or gets worse, discontinue use.)

Broader Context of Treatment:
There are a number of additional considerations to be taken into account. Firstly, it is vitally important that a sufficient amount of water (8-10 glasses per day) is consumed. Dehydration can cause the skin to become dry, flaky and itchy which can develop into eczema. In addition, research has shown that children who have not been breast fed, or were weaned too soon, often develop eczema when weaned from breast milk to cows' milk. Using soy, goats or sheep's milk rather than Cow's milk is less likely to trigger allergy problems.

Common triggers which may cause eczema include:

  • Cows' milk
  • Eggs
  • Cheese
  • Fish
  • Sugar
  • Food additives

Irrespective of what the cause of the dermatitis or eczema, it is very important to not just address the skin with topical applications of creams or ointments, but to carefully assess internal weaknesses and systemic disorders which may lie at the base of the skin disorder.

Consult a qualified, experienced health care professional before beginning treating your condition.

The Merck Manual of Medical Information
Home Edition

Merck manual

This medical reference is highly regarded throughout the medical profession and we highly recommend this book to anyone interested in obtaining high quality, correct information on diseases.

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