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Expert Contact Dermatitis Doctor at Dermatology and Skin Health

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What is Contact Dermatitis?   

Contact dermatitis is a skin inflammation disorder that causes a painful or itchy skin rash on the area that was exposed to a specific irritant or allergen. Most instances of contact dermatitis don’t particularly pose a health threat and it’s not contagious, but they can be very uncomfortable. You can develop an itchy rash within hours after having exposure to an allergen. 

For others, they may not know that they are sensitive to a particular allergen for years and have a delayed reaction. Once a person’s skin becomes sensitized to a certain substance, they will have irritation or allergic reaction to it for life.

Two Main Types of Contact Dermatitis  

It’s not unusual for a person to have some kind of skin reaction to a particular substance. In fact, contact dermatitis is a very common condition since there are a lot of potential allergens and irritants in the surroundings. There are two forms of contact dermatitis that you may develop: 

Allergic Contact Dermatitis

This type of contact dermatitis occurs when your body’s immune system reacts to a specific material. When your skin is exposed to an unknown substance, the body will trigger an immune reaction against it and cause inflammation to the affected site. 

For most people, only a small amount of the allergen is required to start an allergic reaction. It’s also possible to develop a skin allergy to something that you weren’t particularly sensitive to before. When you have repeated exposure to the same allergen, your skin will become sensitized and you will have skin reactions every time you encounter it. 

Irritant Contact Dermatitis 

Most skin reactions are a form of irritant contact dermatitis. This can happen when you are exposed to a harsh chemical or strong substance that damages the skin’s outer protective barrier. People with existing atopic dermatitis are more prone to experiencing irritant contact dermatitis. 

Certain irritants can instantly damage the skin cells and remove the natural oils that protect your skin. Once the substance penetrates the skin barrier, it will start inflammation and an uncomfortable itching sensation on the exposed area. 

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What Triggers Allergic Contact Dermatitis?  

Allergens are unique for every patient but the way the body reacts to it is the same. Some of the most common substances that can trigger allergic contact dermatitis are: 

  • Plants - especially those containing urushiol such as poison oak, poison ivy, poison sumac 
  • Jewelry - such as those made from nickel, cobalt, and copper 
  • Metals - this can include the small buttons found on the inside portion of the jeans and belt buckles 
  • Fragrances in lotions, shampoos, perfumes, and other cosmetics 
  • Peels of citrus fruits 
  • Preservatives
  • Rubber gloves
  • Glues
  • Certain oral medications and topical antibiotic creams 

What Causes Irritant Contact Dermatitis? 

Any particularly material or liquid substance that has a strong chemical can trigger irritant contact dermatitis. Some of the common products that may cause a skin reaction are: 

  • Liquid detergents
  • Soap
  • Bleach 
  • Solvents, oils, and petrols
  • Strong acids and alkalis
  • Retinoids 
  • Benzoyl peroxide 
  • Hair dye
  • Nail polish remover 
  • Plastics and resins
  • Plants such as poinsettia, pepper, poison ivy 
  • Clothes with scratchy wool 
  • Water, especially when you excessively wash your hands with soap 
  • Sawdust, wool dust, wood shavings 
  • Rubbing alcohol and hand sanitizers 
  • Fertilizers and pesticides

Signs of Contact Dermatitis  

What Allergic Contact Dermatitis Looks Like 

After exposure to an allergen, the skin may look red, swollen, bumpy,  and sometimes blistered. A patient with allergic contact dermatitis may also experience hives and persistent burning or itching sensation in the affected area. There may also be some swelling around the eyes and all over the face.

It’s easy to determine the source of the allergic reaction since the rash usually forms where the allergen touches the skin. If you have a rash on the neck or wrist, it can be a good indication that you have an allergy to the metal in the jewelry that you are wearing. 

In severe cases, the rash may extend beyond the point of contact and appear elsewhere in the body. The rash of allergic contact dermatitis may start as soon as several hours after contact with the allergen. It can take days to weeks to heal even after the allergen is removed from the skin.

What Irritant Contact Dermatitis Looks Like 

The symptoms of irritant contact dermatitis may be slightly different from the usual allergic skin reaction. For one, the affected skin will be more painful rather than itchy. You may also notice some skin dryness and cracking in the area that was exposed to the irritant. 

Along with inflammation and swelling, the skin may also feel stiff or tight. There may also be some ulcerations and open sores. Your skin may also appear red and there can be some raised papules or skin lesions on the irritated area. 

Who Are Most Prone to Having Contact Dermatitis?  

Since most allergens and irritants are substances that most people use or encounter on a daily basis, anyone can experience having contact dermatitis at one point in their life. However, certain professions or hobbies can make you more susceptible to this skin condition. 

Some of the common jobs that can increase your risk for having allergic or irritant contact dermatitis are: 

  • Healthcare professionals 
  • Construction workers 
  • Florists 
  • Hair stylists 
  • Cosmetologists
  • Food handlers and cooks
  • Mechanics 
  • Artists 
  • Gardeners 
  • Cleaners, especially janitors and plumbers 
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Contact Dermatitis vs. Other Dermatitides 

Dermatitis is a general medical condition that refers to the inflammation of the skin. The word literally translates to skin (derm) and inflammation (itis). Contact dermatitis shares the same clinical features and symptoms as other forms of skin conditions. Here’s an overview of how contact dermatitis differs from other forms of skin inflammation: 

Contact DermatitisAtopic Dermatitis Nummular DermatitisDyshidrotic Dermatitis 
CausesDevelops after coming into contact with an irritant or allergenAlso known as eczema, this happens when the skin barrier is damagedIt’s not clear what causes it but flare ups may happen due to exposure to cold air, metals, and chemicals May be caused by stress, weak immune system, and seasonal allergies
Symptoms Itchy skin, redness, swelling, and occasional painful blisters and burning sensation Usually causes skin redness and itching. It can also cause skin discoloration and thickening from repeated scratching. Commonly appears as round and coin-shaped lesions on the skin that is filled with oozing fluid.Typically forms painful blisters and rashes. It can also cause the skin to peel and dry.
Common affected areasSymptoms show only on the area that was in contact with the substance such as the hands, fingers, or faceFace, hands, feet, elbows, and inner knees Legs, lower back, hips, forearms, and sometimes hands Usually happens on the hands and feet

What Are the Tests and Treatments for Contact Dermatitis?  

If the cause of the allergic reaction is uncertain, your doctor may perform a patch test. Patch testing is the most common way to determine the potential allergen that caused a contact dermatitis reaction. 

During patch testing, patients are required to wear adhesives containing the suspected allergen. The small patch is applied to the area with sensitive skin such as the inner arm, and it is monitored for several hours. You’ll return to your dermatologist to remove the patch and get a skin check. 

Meanwhile, allergy testing is not necessary to get a diagnosis for irritant contact dermatitis. Your dermatologist may simply ask about your environment and nature of work to identify the common chemicals and irritants that may be causing your skin rash. 

The symptoms of allergic and irritant contact dermatitis may be treated with any of the following: 

  • Antihistamines to control the itching
  • Moisturizers to heal damaged skin and provide a barrier
  • Topical steroid cream
  • Cool compress to provide relief from itching 
  • Calamine lotions for open sores 
  • Oral steroids such as prednisone to help cure severe cases
  • Topical immunomodulators such as 

See Our Contact Dermatitis Specialist Today and Improve Your Skin Health

Discover how you can get lasting relief from your contact dermatitis when you visit our specialist at Dermatology and Skin Health. Our dermatologist can help provide an accurate diagnosis to find what’s causing your skin reaction and recommend the right treatment. Contact us now and request a consultation to improve your overall skin condition.