What is Contact Dermatitis?

By  ,  Onlymyhealth editorial team
Apr 30, 2013

teen boy with contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis, as the name suggests, is an inflammatory skin reaction that occurs, when there is a direct contact of the skin with noxious agents present in the environment. It is, however, cannot be developed without exposure to the noxious agents. That being said, it is not necessary for people exposed to the noxious agents to contract contact dermatitis. This is primarily, because genetic factors of an individual play a large role in deciding whether a person will be affected by exposure to the noxious agents or not and to what extent.

[Read: What is Seborrheic Dermatitis?]


Contact dermatitis is broadly divided into irritant contact dermatitis, allergic contact dermatitis and photo contact dermatitis.

Irritant contact dermatitis is the most common type of contact dermatitis. This type is usually caused when the skin comes in contact with acid, alkaline materials like detergents, soaps and cleaning materials, and chemicals. It is easily recognizable because it appears like a skin burn. Some of the other irritants are:

  • Cement,
  • hair dyes,
  • long-term exposure to wet diapers,
  • pesticides or weed killers,
  • rubber gloves, and
  • shampoos.


Allergic contact dermatitis occurs, when the skin is exposed to a substance that it is intolerant to or sensitive towards. The skin reaction might not occur at the very first exposure to the substance, however, due to constant exposure, the immunity of the skin is weakened and the reaction then occurs. Some of the common allergens are:

  • perfumes,
  • poison ivy,
  • nail enamels,
  • adhesives,
  • certain fabrics, and
  • metals.


[Read: Types of Atopic Dermatitis]

Photo contact dermatitis is when a particular substance is used on or exposed to the skin, and the reaction is only caused, when the skin is then exposed to the sun.  Some of the common allergens are:

  • some shaving creams,
  • ragweed,
  • insecticide spray,
  • certain sulfa ointments.



The most common symptom to be noticed for Contact Dermatitis is redness on the affected skin area. More often than not the redness is accompanied by itching. The severity of the itching will often vary depending on the type of contact dermatitis. In some cases, small red boils and other like skin eruptions may even occur.  Hands are most susceptible to contact dermatitis. Some other symptoms that appear are:


  • rashes and bumps,
  • blisters,
  • weeping wounds,
  • severe crusting,
  • dry and cracked skin that may look like a burn.


Sometimes, an allergic reaction may occur suddenly or at other times the rash might appear after months of continuous exposure to the offending substance.


When to visit the doctor


If the skin irritation is disrupting your daily routine and night sleep, it is well worth a doctor’s visit. Contact dermatitis usually scales over two to three weeks, however, if the offending substance hasn’t been identified or cannot be avoided, the skin reaction is likely to reoccur or take longer to heal in which, case a doctor’s visit is advisable. If the rash or skin irritation continues for more than couple of days and is increasingly painful, it is important that the skin reaction be treated professionally.




A skin patch test is usually suggested by your physician in order to pin point the cause of the skin reaction. After a thorough conversation that sieves through the time when the skin reaction started, a patch test follows. The patch test requires around three visits to the clinic where small quantities of allergens / irritants are applied to the skin and removed 48 hours later and the skin is checked for any reactions. On the third day the skin is then checked for any delayed reactions. On locating the exact allergen / irritant complete avoidance must be followed.

[Read: Diaper Dermatitis in Adults


As soon as a rash or any irritation on the skin is noticed it is extremely important that the area be kept clean and at no cost should there be contact with finger nails (itching) and dirty surfaces. The affected area should only be cleansed with clean cool water.

There are several methods for treating contact dermatitis:

  • Emollients: Emollients are substances that help to keep the skin moisturized and supple. With contact dermatitis causing the skin to crack and dry up, the emollient plays a dual role. It helps build a moisture barrier on the skin surface, thus making the skin soft and it also keep the irritant from contacting the skin surface directly. The type of emollient that should be used will depend on the nature of the skin eruption. For example for weeping wounds, a less greasy emollient like a lotion with minimum grease content will be prescribed. Your GP may sometimes prescribe a combination of two or more types of emollients depending on the severity and area of the contact dermatitis.
  • Tropical Corticosteroids (for severe symptoms): Corticosteroids will be prescribed by your physician if the affected area is red and inflamed. Corticosteroids help reduce inflammation quickly and can provide the much needed relief.  Tropical Corticosteroids need to be applied to the affected area for suitable results.
  • Oral Corticosteroids (for widespread severe symptoms): Corticosteroids tablets may be prescribed by the physician if the area that is affected is widespread and / or severe.  Consumption of theses tablets over a long duration can be harmful and hence the prescription must be followed carefully.


Contact Dermatitis affects a large number of people simply because it cannot be avoided unless the offending substance is known of from the start. However, by being aware of the common irritants, one can be more vigilant in case of wrong contact and can thus arrive on a treatment at the earliest possible.


Read more articles on Contact Dermatitis.



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