Atopic Versus Contact Dermatitis: What's the Difference Between These Two Common Forms of Dermatitis?

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Atopic Dermatitis

Generally, dermatitis is an inflammatory condition of the skin. Atopic dermatitis, which is just one of the specific forms of dermatitis and which is often referred to as eczema, is chronic and is marked by the following symptoms:

  • Itchy and dry skin
  • One or more rashes, particularly on the arms, hands, knees, and feet
  • Skin redness and swelling
  • Scaling of the skin
  • Thickening of the skin
  • Hay fever (in limited cases)
  • Asthma (in limited cases)

Although atopic dermatitis can strike anyone, it is particularly common in infants, children, and those who live in cold climates. The cause of atopic dermatitis remains unknown, but scientists believe that it likely has a genetic cause which is probably exacerbated by certain environmental factors.

Those who have atopic dermatitis should stay clear of irritants that worsen their symptoms. Examples of such irritants include coarse garment fabrics (for example, wool), soaps, dust, dirt, chemical cleaners, and cigarette smoke.

The typical course of treating atopic dermatitis is to identify irritants that aggravate their symptoms (so that these irritants may be avoided) and to identify medications that work well for the particular person who is to be treated. Medicines that are commonly used to treat atopic dermatitis include antibiotics, corticosteroids, antihistamines, and drugs that suppress the immune system.

Contact Dermatitis

Whereas the symptoms of atopic dermatitis are merely exacerbated by certain irritants, contact dermatitis is actually caused by such irritants. In addition to the irritants listed above, common irritants that can cause contact dermatitis include:

  • Cosmetics
  • Deodorant
  • Rubber and latex
  • Skin lotions
  • Metals (especially nickel)
  • Perfume
  • Plants (for example, poison ivy)

Symptoms typically experienced by those who have contact dermatitis are similar to those listed above, which can make it difficult for clinicians to determine whether a dermatitis patient suffers from contact dermatitis, which is relatively easy to completely overcome, or atopic dermatitis, which is not easily overcome (but which is generally manageable).

In diagnosing contact dermatitis in a patient, clinicians typically perform a scratch test to confirm that the patient suffers from the contact form of dermatitis and also to determine the specific cause (or causes) of the condition in that particular person. Once identified, the person can merely avoid the triggering irritant (or irritants) to become symptom-free.

Contact dermatitis treatment courses generally mimic those described above, but they often are not necessary so long as the patient is able to consistently avoid her triggering irritants.

This article is only meant to provide some basic information on atopic versus contact dermatitis, It is not meant to replace the good advice of your doctor in any way.


D.V. Belsito, M.D., Dermatitis, including Atopic, Contact, Seborrheic, and Stasis, American Academy of Dermatology:

Mayo Clinic, Contact Dermatitis:

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, What Is Atopic Dermatitis?: