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What You Need To Know About Contact Dermatitis

Have you ever had red, itchy skin after using a new lotion or soap? Or did your skin become itchy after touching something? You may have contact dermatitis. Here’s what you need to know about this uncomfortable condition.

What Is Contact Dermatitis?

An image of a woman itching her contact dermatitisContact dermatitis is a condition whereby the skin becomes irritated after contact with a substance that triggers the reaction. It is similar to other skin conditions such as eczema but is not contagious or hereditary.

There are two main types: irritant and allergic.

Irritant Contact Dermatitis

Irritant contact dermatitis occurs when the skin comes in contact with a toxic substance. This substance may be applied directly to the skin. The irritants also tend to be everyday materials used in daily life. For this reason, it is the most common type. Irritants can include harsh cleaners, battery acid, kerosene, and even water from frequent hand-washing.

Irritant contact dermatitis is common among people frequently exposed to water and skin care products. They include healthcare workers, hair stylists, bartenders, and factory workers.

Allergic Contact Dermatitis

Allergic contact dermatitis is less common as it only happens for some people. This substance will cause your body to release inflammatory chemicals resulting in itchy skin. Allergens can include everyday items like cosmetics, hygiene products, medications, plants, and nickel.

It can happen to people who have never had it before. For instance, you can get it from changing your shampoo or shower gel. It also happens to people who work in the manufacture of these products. It can also develop in people who use these products regularly, and in people under stress.

Photocontact Dermatitis

The above two are widely regarded as the main types. However, a third category, photocontact dermatitis, is caused when the active ingredients in a product are exposed to the sun. As a result, irritation can occur when you apply this product to the skin.

What Causes Contact Dermatitis?

Contact dermatitis is caused by direct contact with a trigger substance. Trigger substances vary, but typical suspects include cleaning solutions, cosmetics, perfumes, jewelry, latex gloves, and plants. This condition is common among people who consistently come in contact with these irritants.

A wide range of substances can cause it. Some substances can cause both irritation and allergies. These substances include:

  • Cosmetics
  • Hair products
  • Insecticides
  • Nickel from jewelry

Other trigger substances are peculiar to one type of contact dermatitis or another. Some causes are:

  • Latex gloves
  • Detergents
  • Soap
  • Bleach
  • Solvents
  • Kerosene
  • Pesticides
  • Pepper spray
  • Plants

Allergic contact dermatitis causes include:

  • Formaldehyde
  • Medications
  • Balsam of Peru
  • Urushiol from plants like poison ivy and poison oak
  • Airborne pollen

Causes of photoallergic contact dermatitis include sunscreen, cosmetics, and certain plants. Studies have also shown a significant connection between stress and eczemas. However, the extent of the relationship is still being researched. For now, experts agree that stress can trigger or aggravate it.


There are common symptoms that let you know when you have contact dermatitis. These include:

  • An itchy rash
  • Darkened or leathery skin patches
  • Hives
  • Dry, scaly, and flaky skin
  • Oozing blisters and crusty bumps on the skin
  • Skin redness
  • Swelling in affected areas

In addition to the symptoms listed above, there are other uncommon symptoms. Some are specific to a type of contact dermatitis. They include:

  • Ulcerations
  • Skin tightness
  • Sun sensitivity

In extreme situations, it may cause symptoms like:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Skin infection
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Difficulty concentrating

Once you notice these symptoms, you should contact a health care professional. They will help you detect the cause and ways to manage the condition.

How to Manage Contact Dermatitis

An image of a woman applying cream on her contact dermatitisContact dermatitis mostly goes away on it’s own after 2 to 4 weeks. First, you should start by avoiding whatever products or substances you think may have caused the reaction. Then, you can start looking for ways to reduce the symptoms. In most cases, you can manage it at home.

For mild contact dermatitis, first clean the affected area with mild soap and water. Once you remove any remining irritant, you can apply vaseline or another gentle petroleum jelly product to soothe it. You can also use anti-itch lotions, such as calamine lotion or hydrocortisone lotion. Over-the-counter medications to reduce allergic reactions, like diphenhydramine, can also help. Also, ensure you are not scratching the affected area. Scratching can worsen the condition and lead to a skin infection.

Meanwhile, if you have a severe case of contact dermatitis, you should see a doctor. Severe cases include when the rash is close to your eyes, mouth, or other sensitive organs. It is also serious when the irritation covers a large area of your body. If the situation does not improve at home after a week, it may be more severe.

A doctor could suggest a more potent steroid cream to soothe irritated skin. In some cases, dermatologists recommend oral or injectible corticosteroids for short-term use. If your condition is linked to adrenal fatigue, your doctor may propose therapy to address chronic stress as well.

Visiting Your Doctor

If you have persistent or severe contact dermatitis, you should visit a professional. Several other skin conditions may show similar symptoms.

A doctor will consider when you first noticed the symptoms, where you were before that, your occupation, and substances you come in contact with regularly. They will also ask about things that make the symptoms better or worse.

Your healthcare professional may then suggest medications to alleviate your symptoms or refer you to a dermatologist.

The process can be a long one. Your medical history and physical examination may not readily reveal the cause of your condition.

A dermatologist or allergist may do a patch test if they have difficulty determining the cause of your dermatitis. A patch test is an allergy testing process that involves exposing a small part of your skin to a trigger substance. The specialist determines the cause based on your skin’s reaction to the substance.

A thorough examination may also include an inquiry into how you manage stress. For example, if you are currently experiencing a lot of stress, it may lead to Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS).

AFS causes hormonal imbalances that can lead to leaky gut, systemic inflammation, and increased response to allergens. This response happens through the NeuroEndoMetabollic (NEM) stress response circuits, which are triggered by stress. The circuit most related to contact dermatitis is the Inflammation circuit. The Inflammation circuit contains the immune system, which can overreact.

How to Avoid Contact Dermatitis

The best way of preventing contact dermatitis is to avoid it. Some tips to avoid it include:

  • Knowing and avoiding irritants and allergens that trigger the condition
  • Washing your skin after contact with an irritant
  • Wearing protective gear, like long sleeves and pants, if you may be in close contact with irritants
  • Applying protective creams, such as one containing bentoquatam for poison ivy, before coming in contact with an irritant
  • Practicing good hygiene around pets

The Takeaway

Contact dermatitis can reduce your quality of life considerably. Therefore, you should prevent it if you can. Once you are able to avoid the trigger substance, symptoms should clear up within a few weeks. If they don’t, you should see a medical professional for potential allergy testing.

To get more info on how to identify potential allergens and skin conditions, reach out to the team at Dr. Lam Coaching. We offer a free phone consultation at +1 (626) 571-1234. You can discuss your symptoms in confidence with an expert. Then, we will go through various options. You can also send us a question through our Ask The Doctor system by clicking here.

© Copyright 2023 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Lam’s Key Question

Contact dermatitis shows physical symptoms like an itchy rash, flaky skin, leathery patches on skin, blisters with oozing, and redness. This condition can also cause skin tightness and sun sensitivity. Severe cases of contact dermatitis can cause swelling and skin infection.

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