A skin allergy can be irritating, uncomfortable, and sometimes embarrassing. Like other allergies, a skin allergy occurs when the immune system overreacts to something that is usually harmless. Skin allergies can cause a number of signs and symptoms, such as a rash and itching. Exposure to certain substances, known as allergens, can trigger skin allergies. Doctors can diagnose and treat the allergy skin rash and other symptoms with skin allergy medication.
The immune system protects the body by finding and destroying harmful substances, such as viruses and bacteria. People with skin allergies have overly-sensitive immune systems. An allergic reaction occurs when an overly-sensitive immune system mistakenly attacks a harmless substance, known as an allergen. The most common triggers for skin allergies are plants, such as poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, but skin contact with dust mites and cockroaches, certain foods, or latex may also cause symptoms of skin allergies.
When an allergic reaction occurs, the body releases a series of chemicals that orchestrate the allergic reaction. One such chemical is histamine, which causes tiny blood vessels in the affected area to leak fluid to flush the allergens away from your body. This fluid can accumulate in your skin to cause inflammation and a rash.
Common Skin Allergens
Many different allergens can cause a reaction. Each of the skin allergy types can cause various skin allergy symptoms.
Also known as atopic dermatitis, eczema is a group of conditions that cause skin to become dry, itchy, inflamed, or develop a red rash-like appearance. The skin may have small fluid-filled bumps that ooze a yellowish or clear liquid, especially if infected.
Eczema skin allergy is the most common skin condition, particularly in children. This type of skin allergy typically develops during infancy or early childhood, and is often associated with food allergy, allergic rhinitis and asthma. Other triggers include dust mites, animal dander, sweating, or contact with wool, soaps, or other irritants.
Both irritants and allergens can cause contact dermatitis. Irritant contact dermatitis develops when something, such as a harsh chemical, soap or wet diaper, touches your skin to cause irritation. Allergic contact dermatitis is when an allergen touches your skin to cause an allergic reaction. You may develop allergic contact dermatitis after exposing your skin to reactions to poison ivy, nickel, and other substances.
Also known as urticaria, hives are raised bumps on the surface of the skin that can develop as the result of histamines. These itchy bumps, called welts or wheals, can be large or small and can appear anywhere on the body.
Angioedema, or swelling, is the excessive accumulation of fluid in the skin. This swelling can occur anywhere in the body, and may develop along with hives. Angioedema of the skin may develop as the result of an allergic reaction to:
- Pet dander
- Hot or cold temperatures
- Insect bites or stings
- Drug allergy to a medicine
A food skin allergy can cause skin symptoms after eating certain foods, such as peanuts, wheat, eggs, cow’s milk, soy and shellfish.
Skin Allergy Diagnosis
Your dermatologist can diagnose a skin allergy by reviewing your symptoms and possible causes, examining the affected skin, and performing a skin allergy test. While these skin allergy tests are not very invasive, they do provide quick results in most cases.
Dermatologists generally start with prick/puncture skin allergy tests, which allows them to test for several allergens at one time. In this procedure, dermatology professionals use a small device that pricks the skin and applies a diluted allergen just beneath the skin’s surface. Dermatologists then observe the skin for about 15 minutes to see if a wheal appears. The larger the wheal and surrounding “flare,” the more sensitive the patient’s immune system is to the allergen.
If the patient’s prick/puncture test comes back negative but the dermatology team still thinks the patient has a skin allergy, they may suggest an intradermal skin test. In this test, the skin specialist injects a small amount of allergen into the skin before observing the test site.
Patch testing helps dermatologists determine the cause of skin reactions that develop after a substance touches the patient’s skin. This test involves taping patches of the possible allergens to the skin for 48 hours.
Skin Allergy Treatment
The first step of skin allergy treatment is to remove the allergen, of course. Take off any article of clothing that is irritating the skin, for example, wash off the poison ivy or chemical causing contact dermatitis, or remove any dust mites or pet dander from the immediate environment.
Home treatment with over-the-counter skin allergy medication can relieve the discomfort and itching until the rash subsides. Read and follow the instructions carefully, as some non-prescription medicines caution against use in children or in the genital area.
Skin allergy medications can include:
- zinc oxide ointment that soothes irritated skin
- calamine lotion calms contact dermatitis
- hydrocortisone cream (1%) 3 times a day alleviates severe itching – may not be recommended for use in some areas and by young patients
- oral antihistamines that reduce histamines to reduce itching and discomfort that interferes with everyday activities; some cause drowsiness
Dermatologists can prescribe medications to treat skin allergies. Prescription skin allergy medication includes:
- topical steroids to alleviate inflammation and itch
- topical calcineurin inhibitors to reduce itch
- antihistamines to reduce inflammation and itch
For more information on skin allergies and their treatments, contact your dermatologist at Center for Dermatology & Laser Surgery. Our team of dedicated skincare professionals can help you determine the underlying cause of your skin condition and can you create a personalized treatment plan for your skin allergy.