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Have you ever used a new type of skincare product or detergent, only to have your skin become red and irritated? If so, you may have experienced contact dermatitis. This condition occurs when foreign substances or excess exposure to water makes your skin itchy, red, and inflamed.
Most contact dermatitis reactions aren’t severe, but they can be rather unpleasant until the itching subsides.
There are three types of contact dermatitis:
Photocontact dermatitis is very uncommon. It’s a reaction that can occur when the active ingredients in sunscreen are exposed to sunlight.
Allergic Contact Dermatitis
Allergic contact dermatitis occurs when the skin develops an allergic reaction after being exposed to a foreign substance. This causes the body to release inflammatory chemicals that can make the skin feel itchy and irritated.
Common causes of allergic contact dermatitis include:
Irritant Contact Dermatitis
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, irritant contact dermatitis is the most common type of contact dermatitis. This happens when the skin comes in contact with a toxic material.
Toxic substances that can cause irritant contact dermatitis include:
Also known as ‘hand eczema,’ irritant contact dermatitis can occur when the skin comes in contact with less irritating materials like soap — or even water — too often. People whose hands are frequently exposed to water, such as hairdressers, bartenders, and healthcare workers, often experience irritant contact dermatitis.
Contact dermatitis symptoms depend upon the cause and how sensitive you are to the substance that causes the rash. Symptoms associated with allergic contact dermatitis include:
Irritant contact dermatitis may cause slightly different symptoms, such as:
Contact your doctor if your symptoms are severe or not improving with time. Your doctor will take a thorough medical history and examine your skin. Questions they may ask you include:
Your doctor may refer you to an allergy specialist to pinpoint the cause of your contact dermatitis. This specialist can perform allergy testing (called a ‘patch test’), which involves exposing a small patch of your skin to an allergen. If your skin reacts, the allergy specialist can determine the likely cause of your contact dermatitis.
Avoid scratching your irritated skin if you think you may be experiencing contact dermatitis. Scratching can make the irritation worse or even cause a skin infection that requires antibiotics.
Instead, clean your skin with soap and lukewarm water to remove any irritants. One way to soothe the rash is to mix two tablespoons of baking soda in cool water. Soak a washcloth in the cool water, wring it out, and apply it to the skin.
Other anti-itch treatments include calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream. You can purchase these items at most drugstores. Your doctor can prescribe a more potent steroid cream if these creams don’t soothe your skin.
Taking an antihistamine drug such as diphenhydramine can help to cut down on itching and reduce your allergic response.
Most cases of contact dermatitis will go away on their own and aren’t cause for concern. However, 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 at-home treatment.
Avoiding initial exposure to irritants can help prevent contact dermatitis symptoms. Try these tips:
Written by: Rachel Nall, RN, BSN
Published on: Feb 24, 2015
Medically reviewed on: May 19, 2017: Sarah Taylor, MD
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