Symptoms of Contact Dermatitis

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Contact dermatitis develops when your skin comes in contact with a substance that irritates your skin, or one to which you are allergic. The classic symptoms of contact dermatitis are an itchy, red rash, often with bumps and blisters. Other symptoms include dry skin, cracking, burning, and flaking.

Contact dermatitis can come on quickly, in the case of acute contact dermatitis, or develop slowly and be more long-lasting, as in chronic contact dermatitis.

Contact Dermatitis Symptoms
Verywell / Catherine Song

Frequent Symptoms

There are two main types of contact dermatitis: irritant contact dermatitis and allergic contact dermatitis. Irritant contact dermatitis develops when your skin is directly attacked by the offending substance. With allergic contact dermatitis, the immune system is involved.

Symptoms of contact dermatitis can include:

  • Itchiness, burning, dry, cracked skin, redness
  • Sometimes, a few small fluid-filled blisters can form

If you're having symptoms of an acute allergic reaction (for example, difficulty breathing, swelling of the throat, mouth, or lips), seek medical attention immediately.

Acute contact dermatitis comes on quickly with marked symptoms. Poison ivy rash is an example of acute contact dermatitis.

Chronic contact dermatitis won't necessarily cause very obvious symptoms. You can have patches of dry, reddened, or rough skin that never seem to go away, even with repeated application of moisturizing lotions.

Contact dermatitis can affect any area of the body that comes in contact with the causative substance, including the face, eyelids, hands, feet, and genital area.

Contact dermatitis is not contagious. You can't catch it from somebody who has it or pass it along to someone else. If there's a rash going around your household that seems to be contagious, this means that it is not caused by contact dermatitis, and you should be checked out by your healthcare provider.

Sometimes you'll know exactly what caused your contact dermatitis, for instance, if you've come in contact with poison ivy. But often it takes a bit of sleuthing to figure out what the offending substance is.

Rare Symptoms

Sometimes you can experience different effects associated with chronic or acute contact dermatitis.

  • Chronic contact dermatitis can cause lichenified skin—this is when the skin becomes thick and leathery-looking. It happens after long periods of irritation, rubbing, and scratching at the affected area.
  • With acute contact dermatitis, hives or a welt-like rash sometimes occur.

Systemic Contact Dermatitis

Systemic contact dermatitis is an uncommon type of dermatitis that occurs after ingesting, inhaling, or injecting an offending substance. The rash often covers large areas of the body and can cause swelling. Systemic contact dermatitis can develop after a bout of allergic contact dermatitis.

Systemic Contact Dermatitis Example

Here's an example of how systemic contact dermatitis works:

  • Someone develops allergic contact dermatitis from topical application of a skincare product containing balsam of Peru.
  • At any time later on, dermatitis can develop if food containing balsam of Peru (also a fairly common flavoring ingredient) is ingested.

Not everyone who is topically sensitized to balsam of Peru needs to avoid food that contains balsam of Peru; if you are sensitized to Balsam of Peru, ask your healthcare provider about whether you need to avoid foods that contain it.

Complications

Most cases of contact dermatitis do not progress or cause serious health issues. That said, there is a small risk of complications.

Infection

The most common complication of contact dermatitis is infection. Broken skin, either from scratching or from the dermatitis rash, opens the skin up for bacterial contamination, such as Staph or Strep.

Increased redness and pain, weeping of pus, crusting, and swelling are all signs of infection and should be evaluated by a healthcare provider.

Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation

Contact dermatitis can lead to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. This is darkening or discoloration of the skin due to an inflammatory response. You'll notice the discoloration after the contact dermatitis has healed.

Not everyone is prone to developing post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, and it is more likely to develop after a severe bout of contact dermatitis.

Some cases of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation fade away on their own over time. Others can be permanent. Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation is not harmful, but you can talk with your practitioner about treatment if the appearance bothers you.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Most cases of contact dermatitis will heal on their own within about 3 weeks —as long as you avoid the substance that caused the rash. If the rash is healing well and isn't too uncomfortable, there's no need for medical treatment.

You should see a healthcare provider if your rash is:

  • Spreading or getting worse
  • Severe or covering large areas of the body
  • Causing considerable swelling, pain, or raw, bleeding skin
  • Showing signs of infection: Redness, warmth, swelling, pus, or a fever
  • Not clearing or considerably improving within 2–3 weeks

You may need to see a medical professional even if you don't have complications if:

  • The discomfort is interfering with your daily activities: You can't sleep because of the itching; the rash is so painful it's distracting during the day. If the rash is on a young child, you'll notice increased fussiness or crying, waking at night, or an inability to sleep.
  • You don't know what is triggering your rash: Your practitioner can help figure out the cause of contact dermatitis and do patch testing if necessary.
  • You don't know if the rash is contact dermatitis or something else: If there's any uncertainty, your healthcare provider will begin the process of diagnosing contact dermatitis. Some other skin problems such as eczema (atopic dermatitis) or ringworm have similar symptoms.

A Word From Verywell

Contact dermatitis is a very common skin issue, and in the majority of cases it's not serious and clears up on its own. Still, it can be a frustrating problem to have. The itching, burning, and discomfort can impact your life, even if it's short-term.

You might feel that your contact dermatitis, especially a chronic case, can be embarrassing if it's on obvious places like your hands or your face. The good news is that contact dermatitis can, in most cases, be easily treated. If you aren't able to get it under control with home care, don't hesitate to call your healthcare provider.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How quickly do contact dermatitis symptoms appear after coming into contact with an allergen?

    Symptoms may appear in a matter of hours or up to 10 days after coming into contact with an allergen trigger.

  • How do you treat contact dermatitis?

    Most contact dermatitis cases heal on their own, but if it is particularly itchy, a topical corticosteroid cream can ease the itch. Home remedies like oatmeal baths and cool compresses may also help. Over-the-counter hydrocortisone (a weak topical corticosteroid) is often insufficient; in these cases, you should see a healthcare provider. Oral steroids may also be prescribed if the rash does not respond to topical medication.

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3 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.
  1. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Contact Dermatitis: Signs and Symptoms.


  2. American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology. Contact dermatitis.

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Contact dermatitis. Updated October 10, 2019.

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