Contact dermatitis is a skin condition that manifests itself through red and itchy rashes. This form of allergy is triggered when the skin comes in contact with an ingredient, a fabric, or a substance that the body “disapproves” of. Even if contact dermatitis isn’t a life-threatening complication, it causes discomfort on a physical and mental level.
What causes contact dermatitis?
When the skin comes in a contact with a substance that irritates it, that’s when contact dermatitis first appears. There is a huge number of allergens that can trigger this reaction, and some of them may cause both allergic and irritant contact dermatitis.
Irritant contact dermatitis
This is caused by a substance that physically damages the protective layer of your skin. People can start showing symptoms right after coming in contact with the irritant, while other will develop signs only after repeated exposure. There are also cases where people develop a tolerance to a substance that was first and irritant. Some of the most common irritants are pesticides, fertilizers, plants, detergents, certain types of cosmetics, and even rubbing alcohol.
Allergic contact dermatitis
This is triggered when the body’s immune system comes in a contact with a substance to which it’s sensitive. The most common forms of allergic contact dermatitis have visible signs only on areas of the skin that touched the substance directly. Even so, there are cases where the body ingests the allergen through several paths. Some of allergens most likely to cause an allergic contact dermatitis are: airborne substances, plants, cosmetics and personal hygiene products, certain medication, and even metals such as nickel.
Photoallergic contact dermatitis
This is when the body responds to a certain allergen or irritant only after having been exposed to direct sunlight. This typically occurs with cosmetic and self-care products, such as perfumes or sunscreens.
In some rare cases, a person can end up having contact urticaria (which is typically referred to as “hives”). Even if the symptoms are immediately visible on the skin, these hives don’t usually last very long. However, people that do end up having contact urticaria are exposed to the risks of an anaphylactic shock.
Because of their line of work, some people are more exposed to the risks of contact dermatitis. This happens because their jobs involve working with some of the most common allergies and irritants. People who are most exposed to this skin condition are those working in the beauty industry, mechanics and construction workers, certain factory workers, cleaners, health care staff, or people who (because of their jobs) have to wear protective equipment made from materials such as latex.
What are some common contact dermatitis symptoms?
- Burning or swelling
- Dry skin
Contact dermatitis will make its presence felt on parts of the skin that have been directly exposed to the triggering allergen. Among the most common signs of this condition, one can discover the following: burning or swelling of the skin, blisters, bumps, dry or scaly skin, itching, and rashes.
Seeking medical care becomes mandatory if you suspect any skin infections, if you feel your nasal passages are inflamed, or if you feel any internal discomfort that may have been caused by inhaling an allergen. People who experience an episode of contact dermatitis should also see a doctor if the rash or condition is somehow affecting their current lifestyle, or if the skin irritation doesn’t show signs of improvement in a period of three weeks.
How is it diagnosed?
The first step in correctly diagnosing contact dermatitis involves a lot of questions for the patient. A doctor will look to identify exactly what may have triggered the irritation. When they have a clue on what the harmful substance might be, a patch test could follow. This test implies putting the patient’s skin in direct contact with the suspected allergen, to see if it acts as a trigger. The test involves placing several small patches with allergens on the patient, and then carefully examining the skin’s reaction underneath each patch.
Can it be treated?
Treatment for contact dermatitis typically involves a combination of ointments or steroid creams, and oral medication. The former is an option that doctors turn to when their patients are facing mild symptoms. Oral medications are prescribed to treat more severe forms of contact dermatitis, especially if the patient has skin inflammation. Antibiotics and antihistamines may also be prescribed in order to fight off a bacterial infection.
- Avoid triggers
- Don’t scratch
- Use topical creams
- Use oral antihistamines
- Cold compresses
With allergies, the best treatment is avoidance. While contact dermatitis can be treated, most other forms of allergies cannot, so it’s always best to avoid the allergen or irritant that triggers the body’s response. Aside from avoiding the trigger, there are other forms of complementary treatments that can help soothe the skin and alleviate itching.
People who suffer from contact dermatitis (and other forms of skin allergies), will be very tempted to scratch the skin (and further irritate it). Consequently, it’s very important to take all the necessary measures and prevent that from happening. There are over-the-counter options available in drug stores that help prevent that itchy sensation. Hydrocortisone creams are a viable option for such a situation.
A person that has contact dermatitis and tends to frequently scratch the skin, can also take non-prescription anti-itch meds. Benadryl is known for helping in these situations. Wet bandages can go a long way in case of a severe itch. The combination between cold water and a moisturizing cream can alleviate that unpleasant sensation.
In most cases, a rash that appears because of contact dermatitis does not equal an allergy in itself. Simply avoiding the substance that cause the rash to disappear. However, there are cases when these rashes can be very persistent, or even turn into infections. In order to eliminate all suspicions, a visit to the doctor’s office (alongside a patch test) can shed light on the situation. This way, people know exactly what substances to avoid and won’t have to live in fear of coming in contact with triggers each day.