Updated: October 30, 2019
Contact dermatitis is a red, localized rash or irritation of the skin caused by direct contact with a inducing substance to which the skin reacts or an allergic reaction to it.
This condition occurs when you come into contact with certain substance that cause a reaction. Such substances are toxic to the skin and are termed primary irritants. Others may induce an immunologic reaction called allergic contact dermatitis and include plant oils, metals, cleaning solutions, cosmetic additives, perfumes, industrial chemicals, topical antibiotics, and latex rubber additives.
Most contact dermatitis reactions aren't severe, but they can be unpleasant until the itching goes away. You need to identify and avoid the cause of your reaction in order to treat contact dermatitis successfully. The rash usually clears up in two to four weeks if you can avoid the offending substance. You can try soothing your skin with cool, wet compresses, anti-itch creams and other self-care steps.
The symptoms of contact dermatitis depend on the cause and how sensitive you are to the substance. It usually occurs on areas of your body that have been directly exposed to the reaction causing substance. The rash usually develops within minutes to hours of exposure and can last two to four weeks.
Symptoms associated with allergic contact dermatitis include:
Irritant contact dermatitis may cause slightly different symptoms, such as:
Contact dermatitis is caused when you are exposed a substance that irritates your skin or triggers an allergic reaction.
Some of these substances may cause both irritant contact dermatitis and allergic contact dermatitis.
This is the most common type of contact dermatitis which occurs when the skin comes in contact with a toxic material. The outer protective layer of skin will be damaged by non-allergic skin reaction. Some people react to strong irritants after a single exposure. Others may develop signs and symptoms after repeated exposures to even mild irritants. And some people develop a tolerance to the substance over time.
Common irritants include:
Allergic contact dermatitis occurs when the skin develops an allergic reaction after being exposed to a foreign substance or allergen that triggers an immune reaction in your skin. This causes the body to release inflammatory chemicals that can make the skin feel itchy and irritated.
Usually only the area that came into contact with the allergen get affected. But it may be triggered by something that enters your body through foods, flavorings, medicine, or medical or dental procedures which is called as systemic contact dermatitis.
Strong allergen such as poison ivy can affect your skin after a single exposure where as weaker allergens may require multiple exposures over several years to trigger an allergy. Once you develop an allergy to a substance, even a small amount of it can cause a reaction.
Common allergens include:
Products such as some sunscreens and oral medications that cause a reaction when you are in the sun known as photoallergic contact dermatitis. Children can develop this condition from the usual offenders and also from exposure to diapers, baby wipes, sunscreens, clothing with snaps or dyes, and many more.
Most common risk factor is exposure to normal or damaged skin to irritating chemical or known allergens. Less irritating materials like soap or even water can be a risk factor. People whose hands are frequently exposed to water, such as hairdressers, bartenders, and healthcare workers, often experience irritant contact dermatitis of the hands.
Common solvents used in the workplace can damage the skin, producing an irritant dermatitis and permitting allergens access to the deeper tissues. Some jobs and hobbies put you at higher risk of contact dermatitis. Examples include:
Since contact dermatitis is not caused by an infectious microorganism, it is not contagious. However, the condition can produce open raw skin leading to a secondary infection on the damaged skin. This secondary infection can be contagious.
If you repeatedly scratch the affected area, contact dermatitis can lead to an infection causing the area to become wet and oozing. The bacteria or fungi can grow there and may cause an infection.
The most common types of infection are staphylococcus and streptococcus. These can lead to a condition called impetigo. This is a highly contagious skin infection. However, most infections can be treated with antibiotics or antifungal medication.
Scratching can make your skin even itchier which can lead to chronic scratching and scaling. As a result of this the skin may become thick, discolored, and leathery. This can be treated by using corticosteroid creams, anti-itch medications, and anti-anxiety drugs. Streptococcus or staphylococcus bacteria can also cause Cellulitis which is another complications of contact dermatitis. The symptoms of cellulitis include fever, redness, and pain in the affected area. Other symptoms include red streaks in the skin, chills, and aches. It can be life threatening if you have a weakened immune system. Oral antibiotics can be used to treat cellulitis.
Contact dermatitis can also affect your quality of life if the symptoms are severe, persistent, or cause scarring. They may make it difficult for you to do your regular task or may also make you feel embarrassed about the appearance of your skin.
You should talk to your doctor about how to manage your symptoms more effectively in these conditions.
Contact dermatitis can be diagnosed and its cause can be identified by a doctor by talking to you about your signs and symptoms. He/she may question you to find out clues about the trigger substance, and examining your skin to note the pattern and intensity of your rash.
Blood tests and X-rays are not helpful in diagnosing contact dermatitis. A patch testing can be done by applying chemicals or potential allergens to adhesive patches, which are then placed on your skin for 48 to 72 hours in an effort to reproduce the eruption. Skin reactions under the patches can be checked by the doctor to determines whether further testing is needed. This test can be useful if the cause of your rash is not apparent or if your rash recurs often.
Most cases of contact dermatitis go away on their own without any treatment once the substance is no longer in contact with the skin. 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.
Medications that are most often prescribed by doctors include:
These are topically applied creams or ointments that help soothe the rash of contact dermatitis. A topical steroid may be applied 1 or 2 times a day for 2 to 4 weeks.
Oral corticosteroids may prescribed in severe cases to reduce inflammation, antihistamines to relieve itching or antibiotics to fight a bacterial infection.
Avoiding initial exposure to irritants can help prevent contact dermatitis. Using products labeled as hypoallergenic or unscented are safe.
The following general prevention steps can help prevent contact dermatitis: