How to tell them apart



Atopic dermatitis is a chronic skin condition that causes dry, itchy skin. It is one of the most common forms of eczema. Another type is contact dermatitis. A localized rash occurs when the skin comes in contact with substances that contain an allergen. It could be caused by a new skin care product or laundry detergent.

There are three different types of contact dermatitis:

Although atopic dermatitis and contact dermatitis are types of eczema that have very similar symptoms, they have different causes.

Keep reading to find out more ways to distinguish atopic dermatitis from contact dermatitis.

Atopic dermatitis is usually inherited, while contact dermatitis is the result of contact with an external factor. People have different allergens, but the most common types are included in the list below.

The symptoms of atopic and contact dermatitis are quite similar. They can both have a huge impact on a person’s quality of life.

Symptoms of atopic dermatitis and contact dermatitis include:

The location of symptoms is often different. Cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Michele Green explains that atopic dermatitis typically develops in the folds of the arms and knees and around the eyes.

On the other hand, contact dermatitis can appear anywhere on the skin. “The location of the rash is a clue to the allergen,†she says.

Both conditions can go through all three stages of eczema.

Acute eczema phase

In this first step, the skin is triggered by an irritant. This causes red, itchy skin that oozes out.

“The more you scratch it, the more the rash gets worse and doesn’t allow it to heal and can become infected secondarily,†says Green.

Some symptom differences occur during this stage. For example, small blistering blisters are likely to develop with contact dermatitis.

“It’s during exposure to the allergen, which weeps often,†says Green.

Atopic dermatitis

This skin condition is the most common form of eczema. It is also the most serious and the most chronic. People with eczema usually have extremely dry, itchy skin.

Because atopic dermatitis is inherited, those with some type of family history are more predisposed to develop eczema.

Research shows that identical twins are 75 percent more likely to develop atopic dermatitis if one twin is affected.

contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis causes a severe itchy rash and red, inflamed skin.

The rash is often in the form of an irritant, depending on Susan massick, MD, Associate Clinical Professor of Dermatology and Certified Dermatologist at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

For example, you will notice linear lines if you come into contact with a poison ivy plant.

Massick says the onset of symptoms usually appears within 1 to 2 days of exposure and can last up to 2 to 4 weeks. During this time, the rash may swell with drainage, as well as a scab.

Subacute eczema phase

This is the transitional phase, also known as the healing stage. Because there is no cure for eczema, the disease can still flare up if left untreated.

Chronic eczema phase

The result of continuous scratching can lead to the appearance of scaly patches on the skin that are discolored (often brown). The skin also becomes thickened and leathery. It’s common in children, who may not be able to resist scratching or scratching it.

You can have both atopic dermatitis and contact dermatitis.

Dr Alan J. Parks says that people with atopic dermatitis are even more likely to develop contact dermatitis. This is often the result of a person with underlying atopic dermatitis being exposed to allergens that trigger contact dermatitis.

“Contact allergies are commonly seen in atopic dermatitis, but not all people with contact allergies will have the underlying AD. [atopic dermatitis],” he says.

There are many factors that help doctors diagnose atopic and contact dermatitis. Doctors will look at the location of the rash, how it looks, and a review of your medical history.

Typically, however, a visual test is all that is needed.

When additional tests are needed, doctors may perform a biopsy. This should be done during the acute phase of eczema, as similar characteristics make it difficult to distinguish between the two conditions.

Below are additional factors doctors will consider when making a diagnosis:


Atopic dermatitis is usually found on the inside of the elbows and on the back of the knees. Around the eyes is another common space.

Contact dermatitis can appear anywhere on the skin. Common areas include hands and face. If you have a nickel allergy from your watch, for example, the rash will be on your wrist.

You can even spread allergic contact dermatitis to sensitive areas, such as the eyelids and genitals.


Atopic dermatitis usually affects children.

Research has shown that 50 percent of people with atopic dermatitis develop symptoms within the first year of their life.

While some adults suffer from the disease, the majority will come out of it once they reach their teenage years.

Meanwhile, contact dermatitis can affect any age, says Massick. This is because it is an allergic and hypersensitivity reaction. Many young children are allergic to nickel, while people over the age of 70 usually suffer from contact dermatitis from topical antibiotics.

Your profession can also be taken into account. Hairdressers, for example, can suffer from contact dermatitis due to their regular exposure to chemicals.


Be prepared for your doctor to ask you several questions about your medical history. According to Dr. Massick, questions you might hear include:

  • How long has this lasted?
  • Have you been in contact with hair, skin care or food products, do you have a history of asthma or seasonal allergies, or have you been under added stress?
  • What measures seem to help?
  • How common are the symptoms?
  • Have you started using new products?
  • Have you started any new medication, including vitamin supplements?
  • What has changed in your daily life?


Patch tests are allergy tests specifically used for contact allergies.

Small patches of specific allergens are applied directly to the skin, left in place for 24 to 72 hours (the area should remain dry), removed, and then the skin is evaluated for any skin reaction, â€explains Massick.

The treatment for atopic and contact dermatitis is relatively similar. Both conditions can be treated with topical or oral medications to relieve and prevent symptoms.

Additional treatments to try include:

  • emollients
  • antihistamines
  • moisturize regularly to prevent dry skin
  • using products that are gentle on the skin, such as mild soap
  • avoiding harsh chemicals or scented or scented products
  • avoiding triggers like extreme heat or foods you are allergic to
  • To manage stress
  • take antibiotics if you have an infection
  • keep showers or baths short
  • limiting the use of hot water while bathing

In some cases, treatment for contact dermatitis is not necessary. It can clear up on its own.

“Atopic dermatitis tends to be more chronic and there are biologic drugs that can be used, while contact dermatitis is more acute and would eventually go away even without treatment,†Parks explains.

In other words, the prevention of contact dermatitis is essential.

It is important to identify the cause of the allergy associated with contact dermatitis to avoid this trigger in the future. According to Dr. Massick, you want to focus on:

  • avoid exposure as much as possible
  • wash skin after exposure
  • oral antihistamines (if necessary)
  • topical steroids for immediate symptomatic relief (you may need oral or systemic steroids depending on the severity of the allergic reaction)

You will want to see a dermatologist if you experience the following.

For atopic dermatitis:

  • the skin is severely inflamed or itchy
  • symptoms affect daily activities or interfere with sleep at night
  • the skin is infected and shows signs of scabs and scabs, pus, or drainage
  • symptoms do not improve despite treatment

For contact dermatitis:

All of the above symptoms plus:

  • the rash becomes painful
  • the rash spreads without a known cause

You will want to see a doctor immediately if you experience any of the following problems:

Medical emergency

Go to the nearest emergency room or call 911 if you experience any of the following symptoms of a severe allergic reaction:

  • severe infection with pus
  • severe blisters
  • difficulty in breathing
  • cough
  • difficulty swallowing

If you don’t already have a dermatologist, the Healthline FindCare tool can help you connect with doctors in your area.

While atopic dermatitis is generally inherited, contact dermatitis is the result of external stimuli. There are many similarities regarding symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.

See a dermatologist if your symptoms do not improve.


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