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.

Frequent Symptoms

There are two main types of contact dermatitis: irritant contact dermatitis and allergic contact dermatitis. Irritant contact dermatitis develops when your skin's barrier is weakened and the skin is irritated by an offending substance. With allergic contact dermatitis, the immune system is involved.

Symptoms of contact dermatitis are:

  • Red rash
  • Itchiness
  • Burning
  • Dry, cracked skin
  • Red bumps
  • Blisters
  • Swelling
  • Pain
  • Sore, tender skin
  • Oozing, weeping, and/or crusting

If you're having symptoms of an acute allergic reaction above a simple skin rash (for example, difficulty breathing, burning eyes and/or lungs, swelling of the throat, mouth, or lips), seek medical attention immediately.

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

Chronic contact dermatitis symptoms are oftentimes more unobtrusive. You won't necessarily have very obvious symptoms. There may just be patches of extra dry, reddened, or rough skin that never seem to go away even with regular application of moisturizing lotions.

Contact dermatitis can happen on any area of the body that comes in contact with an offending substance, including the face and eyelids, hands, feet, and genital area.

Contact dermatitis is not contagious. You can't catch it from somebody who has it, nor pass it along to someone else. If there's a rash going around your household that seems to be contagious, it's not contact dermatitis but something else. In this case, you should be checked out by your physician.

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

Typically, symptoms of contact dermatitis are fairly straightforward. But sometimes with contact dermatitis, you'll see lichenified skin—this is when the skin becomes thick and leathery-looking. It happens with chronic contact dermatitis 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 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 anytime 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 skin care 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.

Systemic contact dermatitis may be considered if you're having no luck identifying topical causes for contact dermatitis.

Complications

Luckily, most cases of contact dermatitis do not progress into anything more serious. That said, a few things to be on the lookout for:

Infection

The most common complication of contact dermatitis to be on the lookout for is infection. Broken skin, either from scratching or from the rash itself, opens the skin up for invading bacteria 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 doctor.

Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation

Contact dermatitis can lead to another skin problem: 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.

Some cases of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation fade away on their own over time. Others can be permanent. Not everyone is prone to developing post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, but in skin that is prone the more severe contact dermatitis, the more likely long-lasting discoloration will develop. Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation is a cosmetic issue only, but it can be treated by your doctor if it bothers you.

When to See a Doctor

Most cases of contact dermatitis will heal up 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.

However, in some of the following cases you should see a physician:

  • The rash is spreading or getting worse.
  • The rash is so uncomfortable that it's 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.
  • The rash is severe or covering large areas of the body: Considerable swelling, pain, or raw, bleeding skin are all reasons to have the rash seen by a physician.
  • There are signs of infection: If you notice increased redness, heat, swelling, or pus, especially if it is accompanied by a fever, call your doctor immediately.
  • You don't know if the rash is contact dermatitis or something else: If there's any uncertainty, have your physician take a look to diagnose contact dermatitis. Some other skin problems such as eczema (atopic dermatitis) or ringworm have similar symptoms.
  • The rash hasn't cleared or considerably improved within 2–3 weeks: Even if the rash is mild, see the doctor if it's not improving.
  • You don't know what is triggering your rash: Your doctor can help figure out the cause of contact dermatitis and do patch testing if necessary.

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.

Not to mention that contact dermatitis, especially chronic cases, can be embarrassing if they're on obvious places like 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 good home care, don't hesitate to call your doctor.

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


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