What Is Contact Dermatitis?

Medically Reviewed By Raechele Cochran Gathers, MD
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Contact dermatitis is an inflammation of the skin from direct contact with an irritant or allergen. This common skin condition can involve itching, inflammation, discoloration, and blistering, sometimes resembling a burn. In most cases, contact dermatitis does not cause a serious reaction. The condition is not contagious.

This article will explain more about contact dermatitis, including how to prevent and treat it.

While in most cases, contact dermatitis does not cause serious reactions, there can be a potential for complications, such as a secondary bacterial or fungal infection of the rash. 

Seek prompt medical care if you have symptoms of contact dermatitis. Early diagnosis and treatment can help reduce the risk for complications of contact dermatitis.

What are the types of contact dermatitis?

a man is surrounded by ivy
Blue Collectors/Stocksy United

The main types of contact dermatitis are allergic contact dermatitis and irritant contact dermatitis.

Irritant dermatitis is the most common type. It occurs when the skin comes in direct contact with an irritating substance, such as soaps, detergents, and other chemicals. This skin reaction can look similar to a burn.

Allergic contact dermatitis occurs when you have direct contact with substances that you are allergic to, such as poison ivy, some medications, fragrances, dyes, and preservatives.

Contact dermatitis is one of many forms of dermatitis, including atopic dermatitis, nummular eczema, and seborrheic dermatitis.

What are the symptoms of contact dermatitis?

Symptoms of contact dermatitis differ in severity, frequency, and duration. Symptoms may develop quickly after contact with the allergen or substance that triggers contact dermatitis, or it may take days to weeks for symptoms to appear.

Hallmark symptoms of contact dermatitis include:

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

In some cases, scratching can lead to potentially serious complications, such as a secondary bacterial or fungal infection and cellulitis. Seek prompt medical care if you have any of these symptoms:

  • high fever (higher than 101°F)
  • increase or change in the type of drainage from the blisters
  • open sores or lesions
  • redness, swelling, and warmth of the skin surrounding the rash

What causes contact dermatitis?

Contact dermatitis, also called allergic contact dermatitis and irritant contact dermatitis, is often associated with allergies and is due to direct contact with a substance to which you are allergic or sensitive. These substances are called allergens and irritants.

Allergens and irritants that cause contact dermatitis vary from person to person. Common irritants and allergens include:

  • chemicals, such as acids, solvents, and dyes
  • preservatives
  • fragrances and perfumes
  • latex and rubber
  • nickel, a metal often used in jewelry, accessories, and clothing
  • poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac
  • soaps and detergents
  • some medications

What are the risk factors for contact dermatitis?

Many factors increase the risk of contact dermatitis. These include:

  • existing skin conditions, such as eczema and psoriasis
  • exposing hands to wet conditions for long periods of time
  • excessive sun exposure while taking certain medications that cause sensitivity to the sun, such as tetracycline and doxycycline
  • having a history of allergies
  • professions that involve working regularly with chemicals (e.g., mechanics, custodians, hairstylists, or healthcare workers)

Can I prevent contact dermatitis?

Not all people at risk for contact dermatitis will develop the condition. In many cases, it is possible to prevent it. You can lower your risk of developing the condition by:

  • avoiding exposure to the specific allergen or irritant that triggers a skin reaction
  • avoiding situations in which your skin will be exposed to temperature extremes
  • seeking regular medical care and following your treatment plan for allergies and other skin conditions
  • staying out of the sun when taking certain medications, such as tetracycline and doxycycline
  • using emollients (such as mineral oil or cocoa butter)
  • washing new clothing before wearing for the first time
  • trying oatmeal baths and cold compresses to relieve symptoms

How is contact dermatitis treated?

In many cases, contact dermatitis is curable. With a well-integrated, individualized treatment plan, outbreaks of contact dermatitis can be avoided, and symptoms can be effectively controlled or eliminated. A good treatment plan is individualized to your medical history, the severity of your contact dermatitis, the specific cause, and other factors. 

The goals of treatment include identifying and avoiding the allergen or irritant, finding alternatives to offending products, treating skin inflammation, restoring a healthy skin barrier, and ongoing skin protection.

Lifestyle changes and general treatments for contact dermatitis

Lifestyle changes and considerations for treating contact dermatitis include:

  • avoiding alcohol and caffeine
  • avoiding hot tubs, steam baths, saunas, and chlorinated swimming pools
  • avoiding scratchy clothes
  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • getting skin patch testing, in which small amounts of common allergens are applied methodically to the skin to determine what substances are triggering the allergic response
  • minimizing skin dryness by using lotion specifically designed for sensitive skin
  • preventing flare-ups by avoiding exposure to your specific allergen or allergens
  • using a cool mist vaporizer or home humidifier
  • using a perfume-free moisturizer
  • washing with oatmeal-based soap, such as Aveeno, to help relieve itching and inflammation
  • using cool compresses to help relieve itching and inflammation
  • washing with mild soaps and not overwashing or harshly scrubbing the skin

Medications to treat contact dermatitis

In more serious cases of contact dermatitis, doctors may prescribe medications. These may include:

  • antihistamines, which reduce itching
  • corticosteroid cream, which reduces inflammation
  • antibiotics or antifungal drugs, which treat secondary bacterial or fungal infections
  • oral steroids
  • immunosuppressant medications or phototherapy in severe cases

These medications can have side effects, so you should only use them under the direction of a licensed healthcare clinician.

Frequently asked questions

The following are some frequently asked questions about contact dermatitis.

What is the fastest way to heal contact dermatitis?

Physicians commonly recommend applying steroid creams and avoiding what has triggered your contact dermatitis symptoms.

Does contact dermatitis go away by itself?

Contact dermatitis can go away by itself if you remove whatever has triggered the symptoms. This might involve avoiding irritating substances or chemicals, such as cleaning chemicals, or substances you have an allergy to, such as nickel or ivy.

What’s the best cream for contact dermatitis?

The best types of cream for contact dermatitis include:

  • emollients: help to soften skin
  • topical steroid creams: can help sore and inflamed skin
  • colloidal oatmeal and calamine: can soothe skin

Does scratching contact dermatitis cause it to spread?

Scratching allergic contact dermatitis can worsen the rash. 

Scratching can also lead to increased inflammation, more intense itching, and harder scratching. It can also lead to an infection.

Summary

The appearance, severity, and triggers of contact dermatitis vary between individuals.

With an accurate diagnosis of the underlying allergy or sensitivity, contact dermatitis is treatable and curable. Methods include avoiding exposure to the substance that triggers the rash and using topical medications and other therapies.

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Medical Reviewer: Raechele Cochran Gathers, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 Jul 29
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