Contact dermatitis occurs when substances react with your skin. It can result in itchiness, redness, and inflammation. Treatment often begins with an at-home skin care regimen but may require other medications prescribed by your doctor. The first thing to do is to figure out the cause of the reaction and avoid contact with the irritant or allergen that triggers your dermatitis. This will allow your skin to heal and prevent future flare-ups.
If you know that you have come into contact with something that causes you to have dermatitis, wash the skin with soap and water. Even washing the skin within 15 minutes of exposure to poison ivy can prevent the rash from developing. It is important to get the plant’s oils off of you and your clothes, since it is the oil that causes the rash.
If you already have a rash, there are a few treatments that may be helpful.
Apply a cool, damp cloth to the affected area. This can help control inflammation and itching. Soaking the cloth in saline or Burow’s solution (a solution of aluminum acetate) can provide additional relief.
Clean the affected area
If you’ve come into contact with an irritating substance, wash it off as soon as possible. If you’re unsure what caused the rash, taking a shower can reduce the likelihood of it lingering on the skin.
Over-the-counter (OTC) ointments
Anti-itch creams that contain aloe or calendula, natural ingredients that are anti-inflammatory agents, can ease itchiness and control inflammation. Some popular OTC brands include Aveeno, Cortizone-10, Lanacane, Gold Bond, and Caladryl.
Over-the-counter oral antihistamines like Benadryl, Zyrtec, or store-brand allergy medication might help with allergic dermatitis. If you’re frequently experiencing contact dermatitis due to minor allergies, you can take a prescription allergy medication to prevent future outbreaks.
Baths with uncooked oatmeal or medicated solutions are also recommended, especially for children. Water should be lukewarm, not hot or cold. Baking soda can be added to lukewarm water to help with dermatitis.
Contact dermatitis is often itchy or uncomfortable, but scratching can sometimes make it worse by aggravating the area. Cover the affected area with clothing or a bandage if you’re unable to resist the urge to scratch.
Moisturizer and lotions
Using a gentle, hypoallergenic, fragrance-free moisturizer can both soothe and prevent contact dermatitis. It can restore and protect your skin’s outermost layer and relieve some itching. Lotions add a protective barrier that decreases irritation and cracking. They also make skin less susceptible to irritants like excessive heat and cold.
If your contact dermatitis is severe, your doctor may prescribe corticosteroid skin creams or ointments to reduce inflammation. Steroid creams are very common for people with skin conditions and are often available in low-dose, over-the-counter strengths. It’s important to follow the directions because misuse can lead to more serious skin problems.
In the most severe cases of skin allergy, prescription-strength corticosteroid creams or ointments can be applied to the skin to reduce inflammation. For whoidespread or severe allergic reactions, oral or injected corticosteroids may be prescribed. They are generally used for less than two weeks and then tapered off.
Your doctor may also prescribe tacrolimus ointment (Protopic) or pimecrolimus cream (Elidel), particularly with eczema, to treat symptoms such as redness, scaling, and itching. These medications can be used along with or instead of corticosteroids.
If your rash has become infected, your doctor may need to prescribe an antibiotic.
In all cases, follow your doctor’s recommendations for good skin care.
While some people need prescription medications to treat contact dermatitis, it’s important to note that they can result in complications and side effects.
Oral or injectable corticosteroids, for example, can lower your resistance to infection. Less common side effects include increased blood pressure, higher blood sugar, difficulty with sleep and concentration, and restlessness. If you experience any of these symptoms, contact your doctor.
Tacrolimus ointment and pimecrolimus cream are often useful when other medications do not work. Common side effects include infection of hair follicles (folliculitis), irritation, warmth, acne, burning, or redness at the application site. Less common side effects include headache, fever, muscle aches, cough, and flu-like symptoms.
Natural and alternative treatments
If you’re experiencing contact dermatitis but don’t want to use prescription or OTC medications, there are some alternative treatments that may be effective. These include:
- Coconut oil, which has been shown to limit the growth of harmful skin bacteria, also has strong moisturizing properties when applied topically. Use cautiously though, as there have been cases of allergic reactions caused by coconut oil.
- Vitamin E applied topically, which can provide relief from both itching and inflammation.
- Honey, applied topically, has antibacterial and antiseptic properties.
You should stop any alternative treatment immediately if you have a negative reaction.
Who to see
If you’re experiencing contact dermatitis for the first time and are struggling to make an appointment with a specialist, you can contact your primary care physician. They can usually start treatment.
A dermatologist can be helpful for recurring dermatitis. They can diagnose eczema and other types of dermatitis that could be affecting you. They can also run tests and prescribe the necessary medications.
If dermatitis is possibly caused by allergic reactions, you may be referred to an allergy specialist for allergy testing. This testing can help determine what you’re allergic to so you can avoid the allergen in the future.
Outlook and recovery
Contact dermatitis is unpleasant, but many cases can be treated with over-the-counter medications.
To prevent contact dermatitis, avoid known or likely irritants like metals on snaps, buckles and jewelry, chemicals like strong cleaners, excessive hot or cold, or products with strong fragrances. You should use gentle, fragrance-free products if you have sensitive skin. This includes laundry detergent, shampoo, soap, dryer sheets, and moisturizers.
Most cases of contact dermatitis will clear up within several weeks of starting treatment and avoiding the allergic trigger. It may return if the underlying cause isn’t identified and avoided.