Contact Dermatitis: Symptoms, Causes & Treatments

Millions of people suffer from contact dermatitis all around the world, as it is a rather generalized term for a type of skin irritation that is caused by contact with a foreign object. Fortunately, this reaction on the skin tends to be mild, though it is still important to recognize the signs and symptoms, and be aware of the potential treatments you can seek. 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 occurs when the skin comes in contact with a foreign substance, often one that is misidentified as dangerous and reacts accordingly. Atopic dermatitis, on the other hand, is when the allergic reaction occurs due to a problem within the body. Eczema is an excellent example of this, as the predisposition to inflammation comes from the body, not from an outside source.

In the case of contact dermatitis, there are also two differentiations: allergic contact dermatitis and irritant contact dermatitis.

Allergic Contact Dermatitis – This version of contact dermatitis 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 of Contact Dermatitis

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 of Contact Dermatitis

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

Treatments of Contact Dermatitis

When it comes to treating contact dermatitis, many people opt for pure avoidance of the offending substance like topical steroids, moisturizers, antibiotics, and preventative measures (hands), among others.

Avoidance

Given that this condition occurs when you come in contact with an irritant, allergen, chemical or substance, the easiest way to avoid these rash breakouts is simply by avoiding the substance in the future. If you can narrow down the cause, typically with patch testing, it is much easier to isolate the offending compound and try to avoid it. Unfortunately, some of the common irritants are additives in common products or are natural parts of certain jobs. In these cases, proper preventative measures and at-home treatments are often the best options.

Moisturizers

Cracked and dry skin is far more susceptible to negative reactions like contact dermatitis. Therefore, it is very important to prevent dry skin, namely through the use of moisturizers. This can be in common store-bought brands or more natural solutions, such as coconut oil or other essential oil blends.

Preventative Measures

Since irritant contact dermatitis so often affects the hands, a simple means of treatment is to wear gloves and other protective measures in the future. Provided your condition isn’t too serious, the symptoms should go away relatively soon.

Steroids

Topical steroid creams are very good at reducing inflammation on irritated areas of the skin. These can be of varying strengths, and can often work for years, but it isn’t a permanent solution. Eventually, these sorts of irritated areas become more resistant to steroids, requiring stronger doses, which may have other side effects. Only occasional use of topical steroids is recommended, to ensure their long-term efficacy. Short periods of more intense steroid injections can also help to clear up a case of chronic dermatitis.

Antibiotics

If you don’t handle an outbreak of contact dermatitis quickly, the skin can crack, leaving it wide open for infections. As a result, antibiotics are occasionally prescribed if the dermatitis has progressed significantly.

Is Contact Dermatitis Contagious?

Although some claim that contact dermatitis can be passed from one person to another, it cannot be transferred. Each occurrence of contact dermatitis 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 largely because our hands is 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 mucus 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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