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What Is Contact Dermatitis?

Overview

Have you ever used a new type of skincare product or detergent, only to have your skin become red and irritated? If so, you may have experienced contact dermatitis. This condition occurs when chemicals you come into contact with cause a reaction.

Most contact dermatitis reactions aren’t severe, but they can be unpleasant until the itching goes away.

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Symptoms

What are the symptoms of contact dermatitis?

Contact dermatitis symptoms depend on the cause and how sensitive you are to the substance.

Allergic contact dermatitis

Symptoms associated with allergic contact dermatitis include:

  • dry, scaly, flaky skin
  • hives
  • oozing blisters
  • skin redness
  • skin that appears darkened or leathery
  • skin that burns
  • extreme itching
  • sun sensitivity
  • swelling, especially in the eyes, face, or groin areas

Irritant contact dermatitis

Irritant contact dermatitis may cause slightly different symptoms, such as:

  • blistering
  • cracking skin due to extreme dryness
  • swelling
  • skin that feels stiff or tight
  • ulcerations
  • open sores that form crusts

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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.

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Treatment

How is contact dermatitis treated?

Most cases of contact dermatitis go away on their own once the substance is no longer in contact with the skin. Here are some tips you can try at home:

  • Avoid scratching your irritated skin. Scratching can make the irritation worse or even cause a skin infection that requires antibiotics.
  • Clean your skin with mild soap and lukewarm water to remove any irritants.
  • Stop using any products you think might be causing the problem.
  • Apply bland petroleum jelly to soothe the area.
  • Try using anti-itch treatments such as calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream.
  • If needed, take an antihistamine drug such as diphenhydramine to cut down on itching and to reduce your allergic response.

You can purchase these items at most drugstores.

Most times, contact dermatitis isn’t cause for concern. However, you should seek medical attention if your rash is close to your eyes or mouth, covers a large area of your body, or doesn’t improve with home treatment. Your doctor can prescribe a more potent steroid cream if home treatments don’t soothe your skin.

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Pictures

Pictures of contact dermatitis

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Diagnosis

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.

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Prevention

How can I prevent contact dermatitis?

Avoiding initial exposure to irritants can help prevent contact dermatitis. Try these tips:

  • Purchase products labeled “hypoallergenic” or “unscented.”
  • Refrain from wearing latex gloves if you have a latex allergy. Opt for vinyl gloves instead.
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants when hiking in the wilderness.
  • If you notice irritation from a new product, stop using it immediately.

If you know you have sensitive skin, do a spot test with any new products. You can apply the new product to one place on your forearm. Cover the area, and don’t expose it to water or soap. Check for any reaction at 48 and 96 hours after application. If there is any redness or irritation, don’t use the product.

Article resources
  • Contact dermatitis. (n.d.).
  • Contact dermatitis. (n.d.).
  • Contact dermatitis. (2009).
  • Contact dermatitis. (n.d.).
  • Deleo VA. (2004). Photocontact dermatitis.
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. (2014). Contact dermatitis.
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