Dermatitis is a condition that leaves skin itchy, scratchy, and inflamed - just like some viruses can! But is it itself a virus? We take a look at the link between dermatitis and viral infections.
Dermatitis is an irritation of the skin, which can make it itchy, dry and inflamed. Some types of dermatitis are caused by direct contact with irritating substances (things like pollen, pet hair, dust, detergents, nickel, perfume etc.), while others have less obvious triggers! We’ve already looked at how stress can affect the skin, but what’s the connection between dermatitis and infection?
First things first: dermatitis is not itself a viral infection; it isn’t a single organism at all, but just a way of describing a problem with how the skin reacts.
Viruses on the other hand, are microscopic, infectious parasitic agents, tiny molecular machines that move into a host to ‘hack’ their cells and multiply.
So the one is not the other. However, there’s clear evidence that people with atopic dermatitis are more vulnerable to skin infections, both bacterial and viral.
Bacteria (like staphylococcus and streptococcus) can take hold on skin affected by dermatitis because the skin barrier, which is there to keep bacteria out, is faulty. It’s like the skin is wearing a cotton shirt rather than a waterproof coat; it’s just not as effective a protective layer. So bacteria that are around on surfaces and in the air have more chance of entering the body and causing an infection.
But what about viruses? There are certain viruses that affect the skin, not just as a viral rash, (like measles, and which isn’t related to dermatitis at all), but as an actual infection of the skin. It’s been shown that people with chronic dermatitis are more likely to have widespread disseminated viral infections, both because infection is more likely through an impaired skin barrier, but also because eczema involves a problem with the body’s immune system response.
The most well-known of eczema-related viral infections is herpes simplex 1; this is the virus which usually causes cold sores around the mouth, but if someone is suffering from dermatitis, herpes can take hold across a wide area of skin. The resulting infection of eczematous skin is called ‘eczema herpeticum’, and can become a serious problem. It can occur in people with atopic dermatitis, seborrheic dermatitis and even contact dermatitis; while generally more common in children, it can affect anyone at any age.
Herpes simplex is spread through direct skin-to-skin contact, as bacteria infections can be. It typically appears on the face as fluid-filled blisters or spots, and tends to be itchy and painful. Sufferers tend to feel unwell, as this is a systemic virus, and can have fevers and swollen lymph nodes. It’s recommended that anyone suffering from eczema herpeticum is treated with antivirals as soon as possible, to stop it spreading further or causing damage to eyes.
The other well-known virus that can infect the skin is molluscum contagiosum; people - children particularly - with atopic dermatitis are more prone to this virus, but although persistent, it doesn’t tend to be harmful. When molluscum contagiosum and eczema coincide, it’s known as eczema molluscum; the scratching and itching of eczema can make the molluscum spread further.
So while the answer to the original question - is dermatitis a virus? - is no, there is a connection between a few specific viruses and dermatitis.
Here are a few tips to help prevent or minimise a viral infection if you’ve got atopic dermatitis:
Support your body’s immune system to function as well as possible with a good diet, plenty of rest, and stress management techniques.
Try not to scratch! Scratching both damages the skin, leads to further itchiness, and increases the likelihood of an infection taking hold, and spreading once you’re infected. Easier said than done of course, but using gauze coverings, dermatological gloves, keeping nails short and clean, distraction techniques and antihistamines are all effective strategies.
Recommended products for skin prone to dermatitis:
Balmonds Skin Salvation
with hemp and beeswax
Balmonds Daily Moisturising Cream
with shea butter and calendula
Bath & Body Oil
with lavender, hemp and olive
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.