If you experience itchy, red skin after coming in contact with an irritating substance, chances are you have contact dermatitis. This condition occurs when your skin is exposed to something that you are allergic to or you are especially sensitive to. Two different types of contact dermatitis exist — knowing which one you have can help determine how you experience relief.
Allergic contact dermatitis doesn’t always cause a skin reaction right away. Instead, you may notice symptoms that take place anywhere from 12 to 72 hours after exposure. Examples of symptoms associated with allergic contact dermatitis include:
- blistered areas, that may ooze
- dry, scaly areas of skin
- red skin, which can be in patches
- skin that feels like it’s burning, but doesn’t have visible skin sores
- sun sensitivity
These symptoms can last anywhere from two to four weeks after exposure.
Irritant contact dermatitis is different because the irritation can occur immediately with toxic substances or after you have lots of contact with less irritating substances. However, the symptoms of either contact dermatitis type are difficult to distinguish from each other, and from different skin rashes.
Doctors divide contact dermatitis types into allergic and irritant contact dermatitis. While both lead to the itchy, scratchy feelings that come with dermatitis, each has different triggers.
Irritant contact dermatitis is the result of irritation due to something coming in contact with your skin. Examples of substances that could cause irritant contact dermatitis include:
- chemicals, such as those used for household cleaning
- soaps with harsh detergents
- waxes, such as those used for floors
- wet diapers
Irritant contact dermatitis can also result from having lots of contact with less irritating substances, such as:
Allergic contact dermatitis is the result of the skin coming in contact with something you are allergic to. This means the body will trigger an immune system response that makes the skin itchy and irritated. Examples of substances that cause allergic contact dermatitis include:
- formaldehyde, a preservative
- nickel or other metals
- poison ivy
- rubber ingredients
- tattoo ink and black henna
There is a difference between an allergic reaction that could affect your breathing (known as an anaphylactic reaction) and an allergic contact dermatitis one. Serious allergic reactions involve the body releasing an antibody known as IgE. This antibody isn’t released in allergic contact dermatitis reactions.
If you have a skin rash that just won’t go away or have skin that feels chronically irritated, make an appointment to see your doctor. Other symptoms that may indicate you need to see your doctor include:
- Your skin is showing signs of infection, such as being warm to the touch or oozing with fluid that isn’t clear, or you have a fever.
- The rash distracts you from your daily activities.
- The rash is becoming more and more widespread.
- The reaction is on your face or genitalia.
- Your symptoms are not improving.
If your doctor thinks allergic contact dermatitis may be to blame, they can refer you to an allergy specialist.
An allergy specialist can perform patch testing, which involves exposing your skin to small amounts of substances that commonly cause allergies. You will wear the skin patch for about 48 hours, keeping it as dry as possible. After a day, you’ll return to your doctor’s office so they can look at the skin exposed to the patch. You’ll also come back about a week later to further inspect the skin. If you experience a rash within a week of exposure (although some people’s skin reacts immediately), you likely have an allergy.
Even if your skin doesn’t react to a substance, you can be on the lookout for substances that commonly cause your skin to be irritated. Some people keep a journal of their skin symptoms and determine what they were around when the reaction occurred.
Your doctor can recommend allergic contact dermatitis treatments based on what is causing your reaction. Examples of common treatments include:
- antihistamine medications
- oatmeal baths
- soothing lotions or creams
- topical corticosteroids
Avoid scratching your rash because scratching can cause infection.
Once you determine what is causing your contact dermatitis, you should avoid that substance. This will often mean you must take great care when reading labels for skincare products, household cleaners, jewelry, and more.
If you suspect that you have come in contact with any substances you may be allergic to, wash the area with soap and lukewarm water as quickly as possible. Applying cool, wet compresses may also help soothe itching and irritation.
If you experience irritant contact dermatitis, there are some preventive steps you can take at work and home to prevent a reaction from occurring. These include:
- applying a hydrating lotion after you wash your hands to prevent cracking and irritation
- applying plain, protective petroleum jelly to your hands if you frequently come into contact with moisture at work
- using mild soaps to cleanse your hands and/or body
- wearing cotton gloves underneath rubber or latex gloves to prevent the rubber or latex from touching your skin
Remember you are at higher risk for contact dermatitis if you are constantly exposed to certain irritants on the job. Examples of these occupations include healthcare workers, construction workers, waiters, scuba divers, cleaners, gardeners, and chefs.
Both irritant and allergic contact dermatitis can cause itchy, red skin. If you experience severe symptoms associated with either condition, see your physician. Avoid the irritant as much as possible to keep your skin from getting itchy and irritated.