Definition

What is contact dermatitis?

Contact dermatitis is a red, itchy rash caused by direct contact with a substance or an allergic reaction to it. The rash isn’t contagious or life-threatening, but it can be very uncomfortable.

Many substances can cause such reactions, including soaps, cosmetics, fragrances, jewelry, and plants.

To treat contact dermatitis successfully, you need to identify and avoid the cause of your reaction. If you can avoid the offending substance, the rash usually clears up in two to four weeks. You can try soothing your skin with cool, wet compresses, anti-itch creams and other self-care steps.

How common is contact dermatitis?

Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of contact dermatitis?

The common symptoms of contact dermatitis are:

  • A red rash
  • Itching, which may be severe
  • Dry, cracked, scaly skin
  • Bumps and blisters, sometimes with oozing and crusting
  • Swelling, burning or tenderness

Contact dermatitis usually occurs on areas of your body that have been directly exposed to the reaction-causing substance — for example, along a calf that brushed against poison ivy or under a watchband. The rash usually develops within minutes to hours of exposure and can last two to four weeks.

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.

Causes

What causes contact dermatitis?

There are three types of contact dermatitis:

  • Allergic contact dermatitis
  • Irritant contact dermatitis
  • Photo-contact dermatitis

Photocontact dermatitis is less common. It’s a reaction that can occur when the active ingredients in a skin product are exposed to the sun and results in irritation.

Allergic contact dermatitis

Allergic contact dermatitis occurs when the skin develops an allergic reaction after being exposed to a foreign substance. This causes the body to release inflammatory chemicals that can make the skin feel itchy and irritated.

Common causes of allergic contact dermatitis include contact with:

  • Jewelry made from nickel or gold
  • Latex gloves
  • Perfumes or chemicals in cosmetics and skincare products
  • Poison oak or poison ivy

Irritant contact dermatitis

Irritant contact dermatitis is the most common type of contact dermatitis. It happens when the skin comes in contact with a toxic material.

Toxic substances that can cause irritant contact dermatitis include:

  • Battery acid
  • Bleach
  • Drain cleaners
  • Kerosene
  • Detergents
  • Pepper spray

Irritant contact dermatitis can also occur when the skin comes in contact with less irritating materials — like soap or even water — too often. People whose hands are frequently exposed to water, such as hairdressers, bartenders, and healthcare workers, often experience irritant contact dermatitis of the hands, for example.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for contact dermatitis?

There are many risk factors for contact dermatitis, such as:

  • Health care and dental employees
  • Metalworkers
  • Construction workers
  • Hairdressers and cosmetologists
  • Auto mechanics
  • Scuba divers or swimmers, due to the rubber in face masks or goggles
  • Cleaners
  • Gardeners and agricultural workers
  • Cooks and others who work with food

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is contact dermatitis diagnosed?

Contact your doctor if your symptoms are severe or don’t improve with time. Your doctor will take a thorough medical history and examine your skin. Questions they may ask you include:

  • When did you first notice your symptoms?
  • What makes your symptoms better or worse?
  • Did you go hiking just before the rash started?
  • What products do you use on your skin every day?
  • What chemicals do you come in contact with on a daily basis?
  • What do you do for a living?

Your doctor may refer you to an allergy specialist or dermatologist to pinpoint the cause of your contact dermatitis. This specialist can perform allergy testing called a patch test. It involves exposing a small patch of your skin to an allergen. If your skin reacts, the allergy specialist can determine the likely cause of your contact dermatitis.

How is contact dermatitis treated?

If home care steps don’t ease your signs and symptoms, your doctor may prescribe medications. Examples include:

  • Steroid creams or ointments. These topically applied creams or ointments help soothe the rash of contact dermatitis. A topical steroid may be applied one or two times a day for two to four weeks.
  • Oral medications. In severe cases, your doctor may prescribe oral corticosteroids to reduce inflammation, antihistamines to relieve itching or antibiotics to fight a bacterial infection.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage contact dermatitis?

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with contact dermatitis:

  • Avoid the irritant or allergen. The key to this is identifying what’s causing your rash and staying away from it. Your doctor may give you a list of products that typically contain the substance that affects you. Also ask for a list of products that are free of the substance that affects you. If you’re allergic to the metal in a piece of jewelry, you may be able to wear it by putting a barrier between you and the metal. For example, line the inside of a bracelet with a piece of clear tape or paint it with clear nail polish.
  • Apply an anti-itch cream or lotion to the affected area. A nonprescription cream containing at least 1 percent hydrocortisone can temporarily relieve your itch. A steroid ointment may be applied one or two times a day for two to four weeks. Or try calamine lotion.
  • Take an oral anti-itch drug. A nonprescription oral corticosteroid or antihistamine, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl), may be helpful if your itching is severe.
  • Apply cool, wet compresses. Moisten soft washcloths and hold them against the rash to soothe your skin for 15 to 30 minutes. Repeat several times a day.
  • Avoid scratching. Trim your nails. If you can’t keep from scratching an itchy area, cover it with a dressing.
  • Soak in a comfortably cool bath. Sprinkle the water with baking soda or an oatmeal-based bath product.
  • Protect your hands. Rinse and dry hands well and gently after washing. Use moisturizers throughout the day. And choose gloves based on what you’re protecting your hands from. For example, plastic gloves lined with cotton are good if your hands are often wet.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Sources

Review Date: October 3, 2017 | Last Modified: October 3, 2017

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