Contact dermatitis is a skin condition that develops after being an exposed to a personal allergen.
Types of Contact Dermatitis
There are two main types of contact dermatitis: allergic contact dermatitis and irritant contact dermatitis.
Irritant contact dermatitis develops when something damages your skin’s outer protective layer. Irritant contact dermatitis may appear after skin exposure to:
- bleach and detergents
- rubbing alcohol
- sawdust, wool dust, or other airborne substances
- shampoos, permanent wave solutions
- fertilizers and pesticides
A contact dermatitis rash can appear anywhere on your body that comes into contact with an allergen.
Allergic contact dermatitis may develop as the result of an overly-sensitive immune system. Your immune system protects your body from viruses, bacteria, and other foreign substances. Sometimes the immune system can be hypersensitive to otherwise harmless substances, known as allergens. Common allergens that trigger contact dermatitis include:
- nickel, often used in jewelry and other items
- medications, such as antibiotic creams and oral antihistamines
- Balsam of Peru, which is used in perfumes, cosmetics, mouth rinses, flavorings, and many other products
- formaldehyde, commonly found in preservatives and in some disinfectants and clothing
- personal care products, such as body washes, deodorants, cosmetics, hair dyes, and nail polish
- poison ivy and other plants containing urushiol, which is a highly allergenic substance
- ragweed pollen, spray insecticides, and other airborne substances
- products that cause a reaction when you’re in the sun (photoallergic contact dermatitis), such as some sunscreens and oral medications
Atopic vs contact dermatitis
Another type of dermatitis, known as atopic dermatitis, is often confused with contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis develops as the result of direct contact with a known allergen or irritant; atopic dermatitis develops as the result of a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
Contact Dermatitis Symptoms
Contact dermatitis usually develops on the areas of your body directly exposed to the allergen – the rash develops where your watchband rubbed against your wrist, for example, or on the calf that brushed against the poison ivy. The rash typically develops within just minutes to hours of exposure and persist for two to four weeks.
Signs and symptoms of contact dermatitis include:
- a red rash at the exposure point
- itching, which may be severe in some cases
- dry, cracked, or scaly skin
- swelling, tenderness, or burning
- bumps and blisters, sometimes with crusting and oozing
Symptoms of allergic contact dermatitis are slightly different from those of irritant contact dermatitis. Signs and symptoms of allergic contact dermatitis include:
- skin redness
- dry, flaky, scaly skin
- oozing blisters
- skin that burns, extreme itching
- skin that appears darkened or leathery
- sensitivity to the sun
- swelling, especially in the eyes, face, or groin
Severe contact dermatitis can produce larger rashes and more pronounce symptoms compared with mild contact dermatitis.
Contact Dermatitis Treatment
Treatment for irritant contact dermatitis is generally the same as allergic contact dermatitis treatment. Both include determining the underlying cause and taking steps to minimize exposure.
Medications may help alleviate the signs and symptoms of contact dermatitis:
- corticosteroid creams and other anti-itch creams can help relieve inflammation and itching
- oral steroids, such as prednisone, can relieve contact dermatitis rash that does not respond to other treatments
- immunosuppressive medications can help in severe cases that require repeated courses of oral steroids
Frequently Asked Questions about Contact Dermatitis
What is contact dermatitis?
Contact dermatitis is a skin condition that may develop after exposure to irritants or because of an overly-sensitive immune system.
Is contact dermatitis contagious?
This skin condition is not contagious – you cannot catch contact dermatitis by being near someone who has it.
How long does contact dermatitis last?
The rash associated with contact dermatitis can last 2 to four weeks, although treatment can help reduce the signs and symptoms of this skin condition.
Does contact dermatitis spread?
Allergic contact dermatitis sometimes appears to spread over time. Areas that have the greatest amount of exposure to the allergen may break out first and areas of lesser exposure can break out later.
If I have had contact dermatitis in the past, will I get it again?
If you have reacted to an irritant or allergen in the past, you will continue to react every time you are exposed to it in the future.
How can I prevent contact dermatitis?
The best way to prevent contact dermatitis is to avoid the allergens and irritants that cause it, but that is not always possible. If you have a history of contact dermatitis, you may be able to reduce your risk for developing it again. Wash your skin immediately after coming into contact with an allergen or irritant that have caused problems in the past. Choose fragrance-free moisturizers and opt for mild, fragrance and dye-free soaps and cleansers.
When should I call the doctor about my contact dermatitis?
Contact your dermatologist or doctor if you have contact dermatitis and develop any of the following:
- signs and symptoms that go away for a while and then return
- signs of infection, such as red, warm or swollen skin
- skin that hurts
- constant itch
- signs and symptoms that do not go away after a week of treatment
Who knows how to treat contact dermatitis?
Dermatology and skincare professionals have special training and tools that help them treat contact dermatitis. Your dermatology team at Center for Dermatology & Laser Surgery can diagnose your skin condition, determine its underlying causes, and create a personalized treatment plan.