What is contact dermatitis?

Contact dermatitis is a skin reaction that occurs when you touch something and have a reaction. Materials that can cause a skin reaction include cosmetics, soaps, jewelry, plants or fragrances.

Contact dermatitis is one of the most common causes of rashes and may resemble a burn.

Causes of contact dermatitis

A skin reaction is caused by something that irritates the skin and triggers a reaction.

There are two main types of contact dermatitis:

Irritant contact dermatitis

Irritant contact dermatitis is the most common type of contact dermatitis.

Irritants that commonly cause skin reactions include:

  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Beach
  • Laundry detergent
  • Shampoo
  • Plants
  • Fertilizers
  • Pesticides
  • Sawdust

Allergic contact dermatitis

Allergic contact dermatitis can occur if an allergen triggers a reaction in the skin.

Allergens can include:

  • Nickel
  • Antibiotic creams
  • Oral antihistamines
  • Poison ivy
  • Ragweed pollen
  • Spray insecticides
  • Sunscreens
  • Oral medications

Risk factors for contact dermatitis

Occupations that can put you at higher risk of developing a skin reaction include:

  • Health care workers
  • Construction workers
  • Cleaners
  • Hairdressers
  • Chefs
  • Mechanics

Symptoms of contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis typically occurs on the body part that was exposed to the material that caused the reaction.

Symptoms or signs of contact dermatitis include:

  • Red rash
  • Dry, scaly or cracked skin
  • Swelling or tenderness
  • Itching
  • Blisters (some ooze and crust over)
  • Look a lot like a burn

Diagnosis of contact dermatitis

Your primary care doctor, allergist or dermatologist can diagnose contact dermatitis in a physical exam.

During the exam, your doctor will take a full medical history, evaluate your skin and your symptoms and may order a patch test. A patch test can confirm what substance you are allergic to.

Treatment of contact dermatitis

The best way to treat contact dermatitis is to avoid the material that is causing the skin reaction. To relieve the symptoms of a mild reaction, your doctor may recommend using antihistamine medications, moisturizer or a corticosteroid. You may need to treat the area for up to two weeks.

If you have a severe reaction and you are experiencing major swelling, you may need stronger medications such as prednisone. Prednisone is a corticosteroid that is used to treat inflammation.

If you have severe oozing, you may need wet dressings to find relief. If you have an infection, you may need an antibiotic.

Recovery from contact dermatitis

Most patients experience full symptom relief in three weeks or less. If you have poison ivy, oak or sumac, healing may take longer.

To avoid future reactions, you should avoid any substance that caused a reaction in the past.

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