Contact Dermatitis: Types, Causes & Symptoms

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Did you get a rash on wearing that new necklace? Millions of people suffer from contact dermatitis all around the world, as it is a generalized term for a type of skin irritation caused by contact with a foreign object (like metal jewelry). Fortunately, this reaction on the skin tends to be mild, though it is still important to recognize the signs and symptoms. Since anyone can experience this condition at some point in their life, it will be useful to understand as much about the condition as possible beforehand.

What is Contact Dermatitis?

Contact dermatitis is a rash that occurs when the skin comes in contact with a foreign substance, often one that is misidentified as dangerous. This reaction to an irritant or allergen usually takes place within a few hours or days of exposure. The rash can last from two to four weeks. It is possible that you won’t get a rash the first time your skin touches an allergen. But that touch sensitizes your skin, and you could react the next time you come in contact with it.

Types

In the case of contact dermatitis, there are two types:

  • Allergic Contact Dermatitis – This is when the body’s immune system responds to exposure to a substance, which classifies it as an allergen. This is not an allergy that comes from birth; someone will be previously exposed to the substance and the immune system becomes hyper-sensitized to it. In the future, when the immune system detects that substance, it will react with an allergic response.
  • Irritant Contact Dermatitis – This condition primarily affects the skin of the hands when they are exposed to certain irritants for an extended period of time. This variety is largely dependent on the irritant itself; if the chemical or substance is strong enough, it can cause a rapid and immediate response, although some irritants require repeated exposure to begin causing a reaction. The body is not necessarily “allergic” to this substance, but it does irritate the skin and cause inflammation.

When you experience either form of contact dermatitis, the body will react as it always does to a foreign substance – activate the immune system to neutralize the potential allergen, chemical or pathogen, resulting in the release of histamines, as well as blood flow and inflammation on that area of the skin. While this is a good sign that the immune system is functioning, the foreign substance is often harmless and the symptoms of this condition can be quite visible.

Symptoms

The primary symptom of contact dermatitis is a red rash at the site of contact. From there, the symptoms can even worsen, with some people experiencing small raised vesicles that occasionally leak fluid. Itching and burning sensations are not uncommon, particularly when it comes to irritant contact dermatitis.

Symptoms of allergic contact dermatitis tend to be more immediate, while irritants may take longer (either over time or due to repeated exposure) to generate symptoms of irritant contact dermatitis. Furthermore, if you are reacting to an allergen, it may affect a larger section of skin than the area that came in contact with the allergen.

Some types of dermatitis will last longer than others, ranging from a few hours to up to a month, depending on the severity, the substance and your approach towards treatment.

Causes

The causes of contact dermatitis differ between the two types but generally include hard metals, additives, plants, certain types of water, acids, detergents, and preservatives, among others.

Common triggers for irritant contact dermatitis are:

  • Soap, solvents, detergents, bleach
  • Soil, dust
  • Overly acidic and alkaline substances
  • Mustard plants
  • Anemone
  • Battery acid
  • Pepper spray
  • Water (particularly if your hands are cracked and the water is hard)
  • Citrus fruits (peels, juice, etc.)

Common triggers for allergic contact dermatitis are:

  • Perfumes, hair dyes, other cosmetics
  • Chromate, nickel, cobalt
  • Some jewelry elements
  • Leather
  • Rubber
  • Ointments
  • Daffodils
  • Chrysanthemums
  • Latex gloves
  • Poison ivy
  • Poison sumac

Is Contact Dermatitis Contagious?

Although some claim that contact dermatitis can be passed from one person to another, it cannot be transferred. Each occurrence is specific to each person’s sensitivities and unique immune system. Contagious conditions are based on an infectious pathogen or microbe, and that isn’t the cause of contact dermatitis.

When people claim that they have caught contact dermatitis from a partner or child, it may be a case where similar sensitivities are present in both individuals but there is no recorded evidence of dermatitis rashes being contagious in any way.

Contact Dermatitis on the Face & Hands

As mentioned earlier, the most common sites for contact dermatitis are the hands and face; this is mainly because our hands are one part of the body that easily comes in contact with the most potential allergens, chemicals, and irritants. Furthermore, we unconsciously touch our faces dozens, if not hundreds of times a day, including areas near our mucous membranes (e.g., eyes, mouth, nose). In the case of irritant contact dermatitis, it is possible to transfer an irritant from the hands to the face very easily.

In the case of severe facial contact dermatitis, particularly involving the eyes, mouth or nose, it is best to speak with a doctor to identify the specific allergen. The skin on the face is more sensitive than the hands and reactions will tend to be more severe and appear more rapidly.

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