Contact dermatitis is a condition that makes skin red or inflamed after contact with a particular substance. Contact dermatitis is either the result of an allergen or an irritant. Allergic dermatitis usually appears between 12 and 72 hours after exposure. Contact dermatitis usually takes additional time to develop, but strong irritants can cause immediate discomfort and possibly skin damage. Substances that commonly trigger contact dermatitis are perfumes, chemicals, and plants like poison ivy and poison oak.
Irritant dermatitis is the most common form of contact dermatitis. It can be caused by cosmetics, detergents, and household chemicals, all of which can cause inflammation of the skin after, repeated exposure. Contact with harsh chemicals like acids, bleach, or pesticides can cause an immediate reaction.
This type of contact dermatitis occurs when your skin comes in contact with any substance to which you have become especially sensitive. The most severe allergens related to this type of contact dermatitis are poison ivy and poison oak, both of which can cause an allergic reaction within moments of coming into contact with your skin. Other common allergens include:
- latex or rubber
- nickel (found in jewelry, watches, and metal zippers)
- topical antibiotics
In some cases contact dermatitis only occurs after an allergen comes in contact with your skin and sunlight reacts to it, called photoallergic contact dermatitis. This is common with anti-inflammatory topical creams, sunscreen, and some oral medications.
Symptoms vary from person to person, depending on the cause of the inflammation. It is important to note that while contact dermatitis usually occurs in the areas of your body that have made direct contact with the irritating substance, this may not always be the case. For example, you may apply a lotion or cream to your entire body, but only your hands and face react.
Some of the most common signs of contact dermatitis are raised bumps, a red rash, and potentially painful itching. You may also experience patches of skin that are scaly and dry, or resemble a burn. A few other possible symptoms of contact dermatitis are:
- skin that is warm or tender to the touch
- blisters or lesions that ooze fluids
- sensitivity to sunlight
- swelling in the eyes and face
- skin that feels tight and stiff
A doctor can diagnose contact dermatitis by examining the affected area and asking you about irritants you may have come in contact with. If you don’t have any known allergies and have recurring contact dermatitis your doctor may want to perform an allergy test on you to pinpoint what substances are causing your reaction. Allergy testing involves the use of patches that are applied to the skin and removed 48 hours later to check for an allergic reaction. It’s likely that your doctor will have you come in for an additional appointment in another 48 hours to check for any delayed reactions. If you have lesions as part of your symptoms it’s possible that your doctor will want to perform additional tests to rule out other possible causes.
In most cases, contact dermatitis can be treated by washing the affected area to remove any remnants of what caused the inflammation. Anti-itch ointments and antihistamines are common in treatment for mild cases of contact dermatitis, however some doctors may prescribe oral medications. In severe cases oral corticosteroids may be prescribed. Often the best method of treatment may be to avoid further contact with the skin irritant and let the dermatitis go away on its own, which can take between two and four weeks. Avoid cosmetics and soaps that contain fragrances or dyes, and wear breathable cotton fabrics to help prevent further irritation. Other at-home remedies include:
- cold compresses to reduce redness and soothe skin
- over-the-counter antihistamines
- calamine lotion to relieve itching
- oatmeal baths to reduce itching and relieve redness
You should see your doctor right away if your skin is painful, you suspect your skin is infected, or home-care remedies don’t alleviate the irritation.
The best way to prevent developing contact dermatitis is to avoid contact with known irritants and allergens. Keep track of the substances that cause a reaction, and be sure to avoid them. If you do come in contact with a substance you believe to be inflammation causing, wash or rinse the affected area as soon as possible. Wear protective gloves while cleaning or at work, and use mild or unscented soaps and detergents on clothes and linens. Using moisturizer or barrier cream is also recommended to protect the outermost layer of your skin.