Contact dermatitis is most often caused by something that irritates the skin or causes an allergic reaction. It may be something that was often around but never caused problems before. Some common causes of contact dermatitis are:
- Alkalis—such as bleach or oven cleaner
- Solvents—can be found in dry cleaning, nail polish remover
- Acetone—can be found in electronics, makeup, medicine, textiles
- Metals, such as nickel—common in jewelry allergy
- Make up, creams, lotions, aftershave
- Sunlight or artificial light
- Plants, such as poison ivy
The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. A physical exam will be done. Contact dermatitis may be diagnosed based on the rash itself. The doctor may ask questions to see what may have caused the problem. The cause may not always be clear.
A patch test may be done to find out what is causing the problem. A small amount of a substance is applied to the skin and covered with tape. The patch is removed after a period of time. If your skin is red and swollen under the patch, the substance applied to the skin is probably causing the problem.
It will take a few days to a couple weeks for the skin to clear. It is important to stay away from the substance that caused the problem. Steps to help the area while it heals include:
Damage to skin can lead to an infection. To keep the skin as healthy as possible:
- Wash the area with water and mild soap. Pat dry gently, do not scrub.
- Use petrolatum or petroleum jelly over the area. It can help seal the skin until it heals.
- Do not poke at or cut open blisters.
- Cover blisters with dry bandages.
Over-the-counter medicine may help to ease symptoms. Options include:
- Creams and ointments with cortisone
- Antihistamines—may relieve itching for some. Not always useful for contact dermatitis.
Prescription medicine may be recommended such as:
- Creams or pills with corticosteroids
- Immunosuppressants—for severe reactions, those that do not respond to other treatment, or that happen often
Phototherapy may also be used for severe reactions or those that keep coming back. It uses light to ease some inflammation.
This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.
Edits to original content made by Denver Health.
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American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology http://www.aaaai.org
American Academy of Dermatology https://www.aad.org
Canadian Dermatology Association https://www.dermatology.ca
Health Canada https://www.canada.ca
Mowad CM, Anderson B, et al. Allergic contact dermatitis: Patient diagnosis and evaluation. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2016 Jun;74(6):1029-40
Contact dermatitis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114930/Contact-dermatitis. Accessed January 29, 2021.
Contact dermatitis overview. American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI) website. Available at: https://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/library/allergy-library/contact-dermatitis. Accessed January 29, 2021.