Contact Dermatitis: Triggers and Treatment

Are you concerned about a patch of red, itchy, swelling skin? It could be contact dermatitis. “It may sound alarming, but ‘dermatitis’ is just the medical term for ‘rash’ or an inflammation of the skin, and ‘contact’ means the rash has been caused by a chemical contact,” according to Robert Segal, MD, a professor of medicine and dermatology at the University of Arizona and a dermatologist with Banner - University Medicine Dermatology Clinic in Tucson, Arizona.

There are two types of contact dermatitis, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine: irritant contact dermatitis and allergic contact dermatitis.

Irritant contact dermatitis occurs when a harsh chemical, such as acid, touches the skin and causes a chemical burn. A more likely cause for your irritant contact dermatitis, according to Dr. Segal, may be soap or hand sanitizer. “If you wash your hands dozens of times a day or use hand sanitizer often, your skin rash may have come from repeated use of these chemicals, which reduces the normal skin barrier function,” Dr. Segal explained.

Doctors, hospital workers, restaurant employees, machinists, butchers, and parents of young children often experience this type of dermatitis. The most likely areas for irritant contact dermatitis to present are the hands and face.

A less common type is allergic contact dermatitis. “In this type of contact dermatitis, the body recognizes a protein as foreign, and mounts an allergic response against it,” said Dr. Segal. Take poison ivy, for example. “When you encounter the active chemical in poison ivy,” said Dr. Segal, “your immune system may activate against the chemical, resulting in a rash developing 2-3 days later.”

Allergic contact dermatitis can happen anywhere on the body that comes into contact with the allergic chemical. “When the elastic on your socks causes a streaky rash on your ankles or a necklace causes a rash on your neck - this could be allergic contact dermatitis,” according to Dr. Segal.

Treating Contact Dermatitis

Luckily, most cases of contact dermatitis can be treated at home and neither form of contact dermatitis is contagious. To ease the symptoms of your rash, consider:

  • Washing the affected area with water and a gentle soap
  • Applying an over the counter 1% hydrocortisone cream
  • Taking a cool shower to ease your discomfort from the burning and itching
  • Relaxing in an oatmeal bath (oatmeal contains anti-inflammatory and moisture-retaining properties)
  • Putting a cool compress on the affected area
  • Taking an antihistamine, which can help calm your itchy, irritated skin

It’s very difficult to determine if your rash is contact dermatitis, or something else, which is why it’s important to have a doctor take a complete medical history and examine your skin. If you’ve tried these tactics and they aren’t helping, schedule an appointment with a Banner Health dermatologist. You may need prescription medication and your physician may recommend diagnostic patch testing to determine the cause of your contact dermatitis.

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