What is contact dermatitis?

Dermatitis is the medical term for skin inflammation (irritation). Contact dermatitis is an allergic or irritant reaction that causes a painful or itchy skin rash. As the name suggests, you get contact dermatitis from coming into contact with an allergen (like poison ivy) or an irritant (like a chemical).

How common is contact dermatitis?

The condition is common. We are surrounded by irritants and potential allergens. You might experience contact dermatitis more often if you have sensitive skin or other chronic skin problems like atopic dermatitis.

Who might get contact dermatitis?

Irritant reactions can occur after a single exposure or after repeated exposures over time, whereas it takes multiple exposures to the same chemical to develop an allergy. People who work in certain professions have a higher risk of developing contact dermatitis. You might repeatedly encounter irritating chemicals or allergens in these professions:

  • Construction workers.
  • Florists.
  • Food handlers.
  • Hairstylists.
  • Healthcare providers.
  • Janitors and plumbers.
  • Mechanics.
  • Artists.

What are the types of contact dermatitis?

The two main types of contact dermatitis are:

Allergic contact dermatitis: Your body has an allergic reaction to a substance (allergen) that it doesn’t like. Common allergens include jewelry metals (like nickel), cosmetic products, fragrances and preservatives. It can take several days after exposure for an itchy, red rash to develop.

Irritant contact dermatitis: This painful rash tends to come on quickly in response to an irritating substance. Common irritants include detergents, soap, cleaners and acid.

What causes allergic contact dermatitis?

Every time your skin comes into contact with an allergen that it doesn’t like, your body’s immune system responds. White blood cells are recruited into the skin, releasing chemical mediators of inflammation. This response causes the itchy rash. The rash may appear minutes, hours or several days after exposure.

Poison ivy is a top cause of allergic contact dermatitis. Other causes include:

  • Fragrances.
  • Metals, such as nickel.
  • Botanicals.
  • Medications, including antibiotics.
  • Preservatives.

What causes irritant contact dermatitis?

Irritant contact dermatitis occurs more often than allergic contact dermatitis. You develop a rash when a chemical substance irritates the skin’s outer layers. The rash is more painful than itchy.

Common causes of irritant contact dermatitis include:

  • Acids.
  • Alkalis like drain cleaners.
  • Body fluids, including urine and saliva.
  • Certain plants, such as poinsettias and peppers.
  • Hair dyes.
  • Nail polish remover or other solvents.
  • Paints and varnishes.
  • Harsh soaps or detergents.
  • Resins, plastics and epoxies.

What are the symptoms of contact dermatitis?

Signs of contact dermatitis include a skin rash that is:

What should I do if I develop contact dermatitis on the job?

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 the rash.

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