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Atopic dermatitis vs contact dermatitis: Know the differences

Atopic dermatitis and contact dermatitis are both conditions that lead to itching. So, are they same? Here are key differences between atopic dermatitis and contact dermatitis.

Atopic dermatitis and contact dermatitis are two types of eczema, which is a condition known for making skin itchy and red. They can result in discomfort and interfere with daily life. Both the skin conditions can be triggered by environmental factors and require similar soothing treatments such as moisturisers, and cool compresses. There are similarities between the two, but they are not the same. One of them has got to do more with genetics. A person can have both the skin problems at the same time, so it may be difficult to tell them apart. We tell you the key differences between atopic dermatitis and contact dermatitis.

What is atopic dermatitis?

Atopic dermatitis is a chronic inflammatory skin condition characterised by itchy, red, and dry skin. It often occurs in people with a family history of allergies or asthma and can be triggered by environmental factors, and stress, says dermatologist Dr Rupika Singh.

A woman scratching due to atopic dermatitis or contact dermatitis
Atopic dermatitis and contact dermatitis cause itching. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

What is contact dermatitis?

Contact dermatitis is a type of skin inflammation that happens when the skin gets exposed to either an irritant or allergen. It results in red, itchy, and sometimes blistering rashes at the site of contact.

What are the differences between atopic dermatitis and contact dermatitis?

Atopic dermatitis and contact dermatitis share similarities, as both cause red, inflamed, and itchy skin. Here’s what makes them different:

1. Genes

Atopic dermatitis is a chronic, genetic condition with itchy, red, scaly patches, triggered by environmental factors. Contact dermatitis, which is not normally hereditary, is an acute reaction to irritants or allergens, causing localised redness and inflammation, says the expert.

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2. Location

In case of atopic dermatitis, the location is mostly the part of the body that bends or folds. So, it occurs in the folds of the elbows, ankles, behind the ears and knees, and the front portion of the neck. Contact dermatitis can be found on any part of the body, as it occurs at the site of an allergen exposure. So, they can be seen on not only folds of the body, but other parts such as the stomach and hands.

3. Age

Atopic dermatitis mostly affects children, especially those who are five years old or younger. Contact dermatitis, on the other hand, is not very common in children.

4. Diagnosis

Diagnosis for atopic dermatitis involves medical history and sometimes biopsy, while contact dermatitis uses patch testing, says Dr Singh. For this, small patches will be coated in different substances to your skin. A doctor will see if any of those substances cause a reaction.

5. Treatment

Treatments for atopic dermatitis are moisturisers to maintain skin hydration, and topical corticosteroids to reduce inflammation. Treatments for contact dermatitis is avoidance of identified irritants or allergens, emollients to soothe the skin, and oral antihistamines for itching.

Do home remedies work?

Home remedies that work for both atopic and contact dermatitis include using gentle, fragrance-free moisturisers to hydrate the skin, applying cool compresses to reduce itching and inflammation, taking oatmeal baths to soothe irritation, and avoiding known triggers. Also, using mild, hypoallergenic soaps and detergents can help prevent flare-ups, says the expert.

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Oatmeal for atopic dermatitis or contact dermatitis treatment
Oatmeal baths can help to get relief from atopic dermatitis and contact dermatitis, Image courtesy: Shutterstock

Can a person have atopic dermatitis and contact dermatitis at the same time?

Some people can have atopic dermatitis and contact dermatitis at the same time, as per a research published in the American Journal of Clinical Dermatology in 2018. Atopic dermatitis, a chronic condition, can make the skin more sensitive and prone to irritation, increasing the risk of developing contact dermatitis upon exposure to irritants or allergens, says the expert.

Atopic dermatitis and contact dermatitis are similar in a lot of ways, but knowing the differences can help to identify and get treatment accordingly.

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