A sudden case of dermatitis out of the blue could be down to a whole host of factors! Let’s look at the possible explanations.
What is dermatitis?
Dermatitis is an umbrella term for all kinds of skin irritation. There are many different kinds of dermatitis, including atopic dermatitis, more commonly known as eczema, which is a chronic (ie long-term) inflammatory skin condition, as well as more short-term skin issues such as contact dermatitis, which is a reaction to something your skin has come into physical contact with.
What are symptoms of dermatitis?
Just as with the causes of dermatitis, the symptoms of dermatitis are quite wide-ranging. Skin irritation can be sore, dry, painful, itchy or inflamed, and can look bumpy, blistered, raw, raised or discoloured. Different areas of the body and different skin types and colours can react differently, so irritated skin on the arm or hand can look very different to sore, itchy skin on the face or scalp. Irritated patches on skin of colour can look red, grey, brown, purple or silver, while dermatitis on white skin is usually red or pink.
Why do I have dermatitis?
If your skin is suddenly sore, itchy or very dry, it could’ve been caused by various things, but it’s also worth remembering that the way your skin reacts can change throughout your life, with changing hormones, a change of environment or circumstances. But whether this is a very first incidence of dermatitis, or an unexplained flare of a chronic condition, here are some possible explanations for your inflamed skin.
Something you’ve come into contact with
Irritant contact dermatitis or allergic dermatitis tend to be caused by common (and less common!) irritants, which include household detergents, dust mite debris, pet hair, cosmetics, scented toiletries, shampoos or body wash, toxic plants, industrial chemicals, fabrics such as polyester or wool, ingredients such as lanolin, sulphates, alcohol and synthetic preservatives. Skin can also react to beauty treatments such as chemical peels, strong essential oils, face masks, or tanning devices.
Something you’ve eaten or drunk
A significant proportion of those with eczema or other forms of dermatitis are also sensitive (or actually allergic) to foods, and symptoms of food intolerance or allergy can involve skin issues such as rashes, eczema flares or hives. The most common problematic foods are eggs, dairy, wheat, citrus, nuts, peanuts, fish and shellfish.
An initial flare of eczema, rosacea or psoriasis
While most people with eczema have a first flare in babyhood, some people do develop it later on in life. For psoriasis and rosacea sufferers, initial flares of their condition can happen in their twenties or even later, so a patch of dermatitis (subject to other conditions) could turn out to be something more specific than just sore skin. Some people develop adult onset eczema in middle or old age; women can develop itchy sore or inflamed skin in perimenopause, as their hormones change and affect the sensitivity and resilience of their skin.
If you have naturally dry or sensitive skin, it can be affected by any medications you have to take. A reaction to topical medication isn’t uncommon, one of the most notorious culprits being topical steroids, which can sometimes cause a different kind of dermatitis (or full-blown topical steroid withdrawal syndrome) to the one they’re meant to be treating. Perioral dermatitis is particularly associated with steroid creams on the face.
Your skin can also be affected by oral medications you’re taking for other conditions, so check their side-effects with your doctor or pharmacist if you’re puzzled about a flare of dermatitis.
Stress, anxiety or sleeplessness
Your psychological state can have a profound effect on your skin, including triggering a breakout of dermatitis. Stress is a particularly common problem for those with sensitive skin, and can cause flares of existing conditions, as well as making your skin extra sensitive to dryness and inflammation.
Your environment can cause dermatitis if it’s dry, cold or windy, as much as if it’s hot and humid; different skin types and different types of dermatitis occur in different conditions, some being sensitive to heat and sweat, others to dry air. If you’ve moved from one type of climate to another, or have gone on holiday to a very hot or very cold region, you might find your skin flares up unexpectedly in response to the change.
If you’re unsure about what is making your skin itchy or sore, consult your doctor or pharmacist.
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If you require medical advice we recommend you always contact your healthcare professional.
If you or someone you are caring for seems very unwell, is getting worse or you think there's something seriously wrong, call for emergency services straight away. For general medical advice, please contact your healthcare professional, this article does not contain or replace medical advice.
Do not delay getting help if you're worried. Trust your instincts.