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Contact Dermatitis: Treatments, Causes, and Symptoms

Medically reviewed by Kevin Berman, M.D., Ph.D.
Posted on March 30, 2022

Contact dermatitis is a type of eczema. It’s also known as allergic eczema, allergic dermatitis, allergic contact dermatitis, or contact eczema. Exposure to an allergen or irritant triggers contact dermatitis. The symptoms are similar to those in other types of eczema.

People of any age can be affected by contact dermatitis. Those with the condition are no more likely to have other allergic reactions (like asthma or hay fever) than the general population. Contact dermatitis also doesn’t appear to run in families like the most common type of eczema (atopic dermatitis). Irritant contact dermatitis is caused by a caustic substance that irritates the skin, whereas allergic contact dermatitis is an immune-mediated reaction caused by an allergy to a substance.

If you think you have contact dermatitis, understanding the causes, symptoms, and treatments can help you better manage the condition.

Causes of Contact Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis is an inflammatory skin response due to chemical damage or an adaptive immune response to triggers. Common allergens and irritants that trigger contact dermatitis include:

  • Acids
  • Adhesives
  • Alkalis, such as drain cleaner
  • Body fluids, such as urine (as in diaper rash)
  • Detergents
  • Formaldehyde
  • Fragrances
  • Hair dye
  • Medications, such as antibiotics
  • Metals, especially nickel
  • Nail polish remover
  • Pesticides or weed killers
  • Plastics
  • Poison ivy, poinsettias, and other plants
  • Rubber or latex gloves
  • Soaps
  • Varnish and paint

Many people develop irritant contact dermatitis symptoms due to repeated exposure to irritants at work. Occupations associated with higher rates of contact dermatitis include mechanic, florist, chef, hairstylist, plumber, custodian, and health care worker.

In photoallergic contact dermatitis, the irritant or allergen causes issues only when there is exposure to the sun. Photoallergenic contact dermatitis may occur with shaving cream, perfumes, or sunscreens, for example.

Visiting an allergist or dermatologist for patch testing can help you figure out what’s causing contact dermatitis flare-ups.

Symptoms of Contact Dermatitis

The typical symptoms of contact dermatitis appear where the substance has touched the skin. They include:

  • Itchy rash
  • Dry or cracked skin
  • Inflamed and irritated skin
  • Blisters and bumps
  • Burning or stinging sensations
  • Skin that turns red (for pale tones) or dark brown, purple, or gray (for darker tones)
  • Thickened skin

Allergic contact dermatitis symptoms usually appear 24 to 48 hours after exposure to the offending substance. Some people show symptoms the first time they come into contact with a trigger. For others, contact dermatitis develops after several years of repeated exposure.

Symptoms most often appear on the face or hands, but they can show up anywhere on the body that was exposed to the irritant. Once symptoms develop, they may last for two to four weeks.

If your symptoms become worse, you may develop an infection from scratching or breaking the skin barrier. Seek medical attention right away if you suspect a skin infection. Signs of infection include:

  • Pain
  • Fever
  • Expanding redness of the skin
  • Feeling unwell
  • Discharge oozing from the skin

Treatments for Contact Dermatitis

The first step in treating contact dermatitis is to identify and avoid direct contact with the substances that are triggering your symptoms. If you know what’s causing the problem and can avoid contact with that irritant, your symptoms may go away within a few days or a couple of weeks.

MyEczemaTeam members have suggested ways to help avoid irritants, including a member who shared a resource that’s helped them: “Our dermatologist recommended the ACDS CAMP [American Contact Dermatitis Society’s Contact Allergen Management Program] app, which tells us what products don’t have the chemicals my daughter is allergic to. It’s helpful because some products, like laundry detergents, don’t always put their ingredients on the bottle.” Another member suggested the resource SkinSafe, developed by Mayo Clinic.

For some people, avoiding irritating substances can be difficult. This includes people who may be exposed at work. Wearing protective uniforms, face shields, gloves, goggles, and barrier skin moisturizers can help prevent contact dermatitis symptoms.

If your symptoms don’t resolve, treatment for contact dermatitis may include:

  • Immunosuppressants
  • Oral corticosteroids (in severe cases)
  • Psoralen plus ultraviolet A phototherapy
  • Topical corticosteroid gels or creams
  • Aluminum triacetate solution (Burow’s solution)

Despite the allergic nature of some types of contact dermatitis, antihistamines are not an effective remedy for the itching or inflammation. However, antihistamines may help with sleep in some cases.

If your skin becomes infected, you may need topical (applied directly to the affected area) or oral antibiotics to help with healing.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyEczemaTeam is the social network for people with eczema. More than 41,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with eczema.

Are you living with contact dermatitis? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on MyEczemaTeam.

Posted on March 30, 2022
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Kevin Berman, M.D., Ph.D. is a dermatologist at the Atlanta Center for Dermatologic Disease, Atlanta, GA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Anastasia Climan, RDN, CDN is a dietitian with over 10 years of experience in public health and medical writing. Learn more about her here.

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