What Is Contact Dermatitis?

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Contact dermatitis happens when you come in contact with something that irritates your skin or causes an allergic reaction. The first symptom of contact dermatitis is usually itchy skin, followed by a rash. This rash isn’t contagious, meaning it can’t spread from one person to another.

Contact dermatitis is a type of eczema. It’s different from the most common type of eczema (atopic dermatitis) in that it doesn’t run in families and isn’t associated with other allergic conditions.

The condition is common in people exposed to chemicals daily, such as hairstylists, florists, custodians, mechanics, and healthcare workers. Most of the time, once the allergen or irritant is removed, contact dermatitis clears up within a couple of weeks.

This article discusses the symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment of contact dermatitis.

Allergic contact dermatitis on the skin

Reproduced with permission from ©DermNet NZ and ©Waikato District Health Board www.dermnetnz.org 2022.

What Parts of the Body Does Contact Dermatitis Affect?

Contact dermatitis typically crops up on parts of the skin that have had direct contact with the irritating substance. Later, a reaction can occur in other areas of the body that weren’t exposed to the irritant or allergen.

Contact dermatitis essentially can show up on any part of the body but commonly affects the skin on the:

  • Hands (specifically the fingers and backs of the hands)
  • Face
  • Eyelids
  • Neck
  • Lower legs
  • Feet

Types of Contact Dermatitis

The two main types of contact dermatitis are:

  • Irritant contact dermatitis is the most common type, accounting for 80% of all cases. The reaction occurs when skin cells are damaged by exposure to irritating substances.
  • Allergic contact dermatitis occurs when the skin develops an allergic reaction after being exposed to a substance.

Photoallergic Contact Dermatitis

Photoallergic contact dermatitis is less common and occurs when an allergen or irritant causes a skin reaction only after sun exposure. Sunscreens, shaving creams, and perfumes can trigger this type of response.

What Does Contact Dermatitis Look Like?

An itchy, red rash is the signature sign of contact dermatitis, but how the rash appears can vary. Allergic reactions can happen quickly or turn up months, or even years, after exposure.

Some common symptoms of contact dermatitis include:

  • Blisters or bumps that may ooze fluid or crust over
  • Swelling
  • Dry or cracked skin (more typical on light skin)
  • Patches that are darker in color (this is common on dark skin)

Other Symptoms 

In addition to intense itching, contact dermatitis may cause the skin to burn or feel tender. Some people also develop cuts (fissures) on their hands.

The shape of the rash might give clues to its cause. For example, if the rash is circular and near your abdomen, it could be due to a reaction to a button or snap in jeans.

Contact dermatitis can also affect your quality of life. The itching can interfere with sleep and cause problems concentrating or performing daily tasks.

Contact Dermatitis That Spreads

Sometimes, allergic contact dermatitis rashes can spread from the original site. If you persistently scratch your skin, an infection can develop, which can also spread.

Contact Dermatitis Causes and Triggers

Many triggers can prompt a contact dermatitis skin reaction. More than 15,000 items that touch the skin can cause an allergic reaction.

Some common allergens that can trigger contact dermatitis include:

Some items that trigger an allergic reaction can also prompt an irritant contact dermatitis response. Common skin irritants include:

  • Cement
  • Rubber gloves
  • Hair dye, shampoos, soaps
  • Bleach and detergents
  • Herbicides (weed killers), pesticides
  • Plants
  • Wet diapers

Animals and Contact Dermatitis

Animals like dogs and cats can trigger contact dermatitis when their skin flakes off dander.

Can You Prevent Contact Dermatitis? 

While you may not be able to prevent a contact dermatitis reaction completely, there are some steps you can take to lower your risk of experiencing one. Some of these strategies include:

  • Avoid any known allergens or irritants.
  • Wash your skin soon after you come in contact with an allergen or irritant.
  • Wear protective gloves, goggles, or clothing when you are around irritating substances.
  • Use a moisturizer or cream to keep your skin hydrated.

How Is Contact Dermatitis Diagnosed?

Healthcare providers typically diagnose contact dermatitis by examining the skin and asking questions about possible exposures.

Patch testing is done to try to determine the cause of an allergic reaction. This involves applying sticky patches that contain small amounts of possible allergens to the skin and checking for a reaction after a couple of days.

Other tests, such as skin biopsies or skin lesion cultures, may be performed occasionally to rule out other skin reaction causes.  

What Healthcare Provider Treats Contact Dermatitis?

Dermatologists have special training in diagnosing and treating skin disorders like contact dermatitis. See a board-certified dermatologist if you develop signs of contact dermatitis.

Treating Contact Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis treatment typically involves topical steroid creams to alleviate the symptoms. However, these treatments are only used for a short period. Sometimes, oral or injectable steroids, other immunosuppressants, or immunmodulator medications are recommended if the rash is severe or widespread.

Applying cool or wet cloths to the skin or using anti-itch creams can also help relieve itching.

Contact Dermatitis Healing Stages 

Avoiding the allergen or irritant that’s triggering the skin reaction is the best way to promote healing. If you effectively avoid the substance, contact dermatitis rashes usually clear up in about two to three weeks. The rash can return if you are exposed to the triggering substance again. 

What to Do If Contact Dermatitis Doesn’t Go Away 

Sometimes, the allergens and irritants that cause contact dermatitis are never identified. If your contact dermatitis doesn't go away, you may need to change your daily habits or even your job if exposure at work is suspected. Talk to your healthcare provider if your rash worsens or doesn't get better.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. National Eczema Association. Contact dermatitis.

  3. MedlinePlus. Contact dermatitis.

  4. National Library of Medicine. Allergic contact dermatitis: Overview.

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