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Contact dermatitis is a type of rash or inflammation of the skin. It can be caused by an allergic reaction or by irritants. The rash does not always appear immediately. It may take some time to develop, even hours later. Contact dermatitis can be uncomfortable or embarrassing, but it’s treatable. Knowing your risk factors can help you take precautions to reduce your risk of developing the condition.
If you have a history of any allergy, you’re more likely to develop allergic contact dermatitis. Children who have a food allergy are more likely to have a skin allergy, especially atopic dermatitis (eczema).
People with existing skin disorders like eczema, psoriasis, acne, or others are also more likely to get contact dermatitis.
Approximately 80 percent of contact dermatitis cases are irritant contact dermatitis. Unlike allergic contact dermatitis, the immune system is not triggered in this kind. It’s simply an inflammatory skin reaction.
People who work with their skin submerged in water on a regular basis are more likely to develop irritant contact dermatitis. This is because the water strips the skin of protective oils. The same is true for people who work outdoors or with high levels of heat. Examples include:
Women are more likely to develop irritant contact dermatitis. This is not because of any inherent gender characteristic. It’s simply due to the fact that women disproportionately fill occupations where contact dermatitis is more prevalent, like hairdressing or nursing.
Repeated use of irritants can also increase sensitivity to contact dermatitis. While initial use of something like contact lens solution or wearing a watch containing nickel may not trigger an immediate response, repeated use can increase your risk for contact dermatitis.
Sunlight can also be a risk factor. Certain contact dermatitis allergens are photosensitizers. This means they only cause a skin reaction after they are exposed to sunlight. Common photosensitizers are perfumes and aftershave lotions that contain certain oils. Soaps, detergents, and sunscreens can also cause skin reactions. Even certain fruits and vegetables, like limes, celery, and figs, may be triggers. Some oral medications, including tetracycline and doxycycline, also cause the skin to react with sunlight.
While there is no way to completely prevent either kind of contact dermatitis, you can take steps to reduce your risk. See what you can do to protect your skin if your job exposes you to irritants. If you are prone to allergies, talk with your allergist about how to avoid allergic contact dermatitis.
Written by: The Healthline Editorial Team & Jaime Herndon
Medically reviewed on: Sep 15, 2014: George T. Krucik, MD, MBA
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