Contact dermatitis is a rash on your skin that develops when you come into contact with something you’re allergic to or something that irritated your skin. The rash can swell and be itchy and uncomfortable. Avoiding what caused your rash helps prevent it from returning.
Contact dermatitis is your skin’s reaction to something in your environment that causes an itchy rash. “Dermatitis” is the medical term for skin irritation or swelling (inflammation). You get contact dermatitis by coming into contact with a substance, organism, object or chemical that’s irritating to your skin.
There are two types of contact dermatitis:
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Contact dermatitis can affect anyone at any age, from a baby to an adult. Skin reactions can occur after a single exposure or after repeated exposures over time.
People who work in certain professions have a higher risk of developing contact dermatitis if they repeatedly encounter irritating chemicals or allergens. Professions at a high risk of developing contact dermatitis include:
Contact dermatitis is common. Irritants and potential allergens surround humans. You might experience contact dermatitis more often if you have sensitive skin or chronic skin conditions.
Contact dermatitis causes a rash to form on your skin. This rash can form anywhere on your body and is usually a patch of skin covered in bumps that are red, itchy and sometimes painful. The rash can last for a few days to a couple of weeks. It generally goes away quickly if you identify what caused your reaction and stay away if you can avoid that irritant or allergen.
Symptoms of contact dermatitis include a rash on your skin that’s:
Scratching your rash could break open your skin and cause a wound. If this wound becomes infected, it will look red and crusty and may be painful or leak pus.
You can experience contact dermatitis anywhere that your skin came into contact with an allergen or irritant. The most common places that people experience symptoms include:
Physical contact with an allergen or an irritant causes contact dermatitis.
If your body doesn’t like something that touches your skin, your immune system responds. When you see your skin swell or become inflamed, that’s a sign that your white blood cells are responding to the allergen or irritant, which can cause an itchy rash. The rash may appear in minutes if it’s caused by an irritant, or may take hours or days to appear after exposure to an allergen.
The most common causes of allergic contact dermatitis include:
The most common causes of irritant contact dermatitis include:
If you encounter an allergen like poison ivy and touch someone else’s skin before you’ve washed yours, it’s possible to spread the allergen to them. They may then have a reaction if they’re also allergic. But contact dermatitis isn’t actually contagious. Your body’s reaction is unique to the material that touched it and not everyone reacts the same way.
Depending on what caused your skin reaction, contact dermatitis can spread to other parts of your body. This is most common for allergic contact dermatitis. It happens when you touch an allergen and then touch other parts of your body before you realize that you’ve been in contact with it, or when multiple body parts touch the allergen and the reaction slowly unfolds in all areas of contact. If you notice your rash spreading to other parts of your body, contact a healthcare provider for treatment.
Your healthcare provider will diagnose contact dermatitis after taking a complete medical history, performing a physical exam and reviewing your symptoms.
There isn’t a test to identify the cause of irritant contact dermatitis, but your provider will ask questions to learn more about your environment, things you’ve come into contact with and the location and size of your rash. These questions could include:
For allergic contact dermatitis, your provider may offer testing, including a patch test to confirm a diagnosis. For a patch test, your provider will place a sticky patch on your skin. That patch is coated in common allergens. When your provider removes the patch, they’ll be able to see if the allergens on the patch triggered an allergic reaction on your skin.
Treatment for contact dermatitis is the same for both allergic and irritant types. Treatment could include:
Aside from the rash, uncommon, serious complications can happen when you have an allergy to something. Complications of an allergic reaction include:
Anaphylaxis is uncommon but it’s a medical emergency. If you have trouble breathing, contact 911 immediately. Immediate epinephrine injection can counteract this allergic reaction. People with known significant allergies should carry an injectable epinephrine, like EpiPen®.
If you’re regularly exposed to irritating chemicals or allergens at work and develop contact dermatitis, ask your employer for a chemical safety data sheet. You can take this information to your healthcare provider to help determine what’s causing your symptoms.
It can take several weeks for the contact dermatitis rash to go away with treatment. You might notice symptoms of itching decrease or go away a couple of days after treatment begins even though you still have a visible rash on your skin. Mild cases of contact dermatitis could go away within a few days with avoidance of what caused your symptoms, with no additional treatment necessary. If you experience symptoms of contact dermatitis, reach out to a healthcare provider for help with your symptoms.
You can prevent contact dermatitis by:
There’s no cure for contact dermatitis. If your body reacted to an allergen or irritant, you’ll likely continue to have a similar reaction every time you’re exposed to it. Avoidance is the best prevention for contact dermatitis.
Many people who have contact dermatitis caused by substances they interact with in their workplace can find ways to reduce exposure. A healthcare provider can help you navigate your condition and offer recommendations.
You should call your healthcare provider if your skin rash:
Visit the emergency room or call 911 immediately if you have trouble breathing or have swelling of your lips or mouth.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of contact dermatitis, talk to a healthcare provider. You may want to ask:
Contact dermatitis and herpes can affect similar parts of your body but they’re very different. Herpes is a sexually transmitted viral infection and spreads from person to person through physical contact. Contact dermatitis isn’t an infection and isn’t contagious.
Allergic contact dermatitis is related to atopic dermatitis or eczema because they can both affect people with allergies. Contact dermatitis occurs when you touch something that your skin reacts to. It comes from an outside source. Atopic dermatitis or eczema occurs in people who have allergies, but they’re often not related to touching a specific substance; they come from the inside.
Tea tree oil has certain antibacterial components that can influence skin reactions like a contact dermatitis rash. If you experience symptoms of contact dermatitis, don’t use essential oils like tea tree oil until you contact a healthcare provider to see if it’s right for you. Adding new products to your skin during a contact dermatitis reaction can irritate your rash and make it worse.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Contact dermatitis is your skin’s reaction to something in your environment that causes an itchy rash. A healthcare provider can help you find out what caused your skin to react negatively and work with you on ways to avoid contact with the allergen or irritant in your environment. If you experience contact dermatitis from a chemical or material that you use in the workplace, your provider can make recommendations and your employer can help you safely navigate your working environment to reduce future skin reactions.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/30/2023.
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