Dermatitis: Contact

What is contact dermatitis?

Contact dermatitis is a red, swollen rash on the skin caused by a reaction to an irritating substance, such as a harsh soap or chemical. The rash is usually just in the area of skin that came in contact with the substance. It can affect any part of the body but most commonly affects the hands.

What is the cause?

Contact dermatitis is caused by something that irritates the skin or causes an allergic reaction. Products that can irritate the skin include soaps, detergents, solvents, waxes, polishes, and many cleaning solutions. Plants that cause contact dermatitis include poison oak, poison ivy, and ragweed.

Your body may have an allergic reaction to substances it sees as harmful or foreign. Substances that can cause an allergic reaction are called allergens. Allergens include hair dyes, jewelry, fingernail polish, and deodorants. Nickel is a metal that can cause an allergic reaction. Nickel is found in inexpensive jewelry, belt buckles, and the backs of watches. Contact with rubber may also cause contact dermatitis.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • Itching, swelling, and redness of the skin
  • Flaking or peeling of the skin
  • Blisters that may break open and ooze, crust, or flake

How is it diagnosed?

Your provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine your skin. Your provider will also ask about your work duties, your hobbies, and products you use, to try to identify what has irritated your skin. You may need allergy testing, where your healthcare provider will place skin patches on your skin to find what is causing the reaction.

How is it treated?

Your healthcare provider may prescribe:

  • Cream or ointment to stop the itching and other symptoms
  • Antihistamine pills to help stop itching and any allergic reaction. Do not put antihistamine creams or lotions on your skin if you are taking antihistamine pills.
  • Anti-inflammatory medicine, such as prednisone, if your rash is severe

You will need to try to avoid the substance that irritated your skin.

With treatment, the rash should get better in a few days. If the rash gets infected, you may need antibiotics and it will take a few days longer before your skin is completely healed.

How can I take care of myself?

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. In addition:

  • Avoid contact with whatever caused your symptoms.
  • Don’t scratch your skin even though it itches. Scratching may break the skin and cause infection. If you think your skin might be infected, contact your healthcare provider. Serious or repeated infections can cause permanent scarring. This is more likely to happen if you have dark skin.
  • Put cool, moist cloths on the areas of skin with dermatitis to help lessen itching.
  • Soak some cloth in aluminum acetate solution (Burrow’s solution) and put the cloth on the rash for 15 to 30 minutes.
  • Put calamine lotion or ointment on your skin to reduce the redness, ease the itching, and help dry up the blisters.
  • Use unscented moisturizing creams or ointments, rather than water-based lotions. Moisturize your skin regularly, several times a day, if possible. Helpful ingredients are petroleum jelly, lanolin, and glycerin. Ask your healthcare provider or pharmacist what you should use.
  • Take short baths or showers no more than once a day. Use a mild moisturizing soap or nonsoap cleanser. Avoid long, hot baths. Hot water can increase itching. Pat your skin dry with a soft towel. Do not rub your skin dry.
  • Soak in a lukewarm bath with cornstarch (1/2 cup) or an oatmeal product made for skin conditions (available at drugstores) added to the water to help ease the itching.
  • Do not keep the area covered. The rash will usually heal more quickly if it is left open to the air.

Ask your provider:

  • How long it will take to recover
  • If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.

How can I help prevent contact dermatitis?

If you know the substance that caused the dermatitis, make sure that the substance is not one of the ingredients in the cosmetics, cleaning, or other products that you use. If you are accidentally exposed to the substance, wash the exposed area right away. Wash thoroughly but gently to try to remove as much of the substance as possible without further irritating the skin.

You may need to stop using one product at a time to see which one makes your rash worse.

Whether or not you know what substances give you contact dermatitis, it may be helpful to:

  • Learn to recognize poison oak, poison ivy, and ragweed, and avoid contact with them.
  • Use hypoallergenic cosmetics.
  • Wear protective gloves when you need to use solvents and chemicals.
  • Protect your hands with gloves when you wash dishes, garden, or do chores.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-10-10
Last reviewed: 2014-10-10
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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