UT University Health Services

Contact Dermatitis

What is contact dermatitis?

Contact dermatitis is an inflammation of the skin that happens when it is touched by an irritating substance. The rash is usually just in the area of skin that touched the substance.

How does it occur?

Contact dermatitis occurs when the skin touches a substance that irritates the skin or causes an allergic reaction. Common causes of contact dermatitis from irritants are soaps, detergents, solvents, waxes, polishes, and hand cleaners. Common causes from allergic reactions are hair dyes, jewelry, fingernail polish, and deodorants. Some of the other substances that might cause contact dermatitis are rubber, poison ivy, and nickel. (Nickel is often in inexpensive jewelry, belt buckles, and the backs of watches.)

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of contact dermatitis include:

  • itching
  • swelling
  • redness of the skin
  • scaling of the skin
  • blisters that may break open and ooze, crust, or scale, possibly causing an infection.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your recent medical history and any travel you have done, your work duties, your hobbies, etc., to try to identify possible irritants that may have touched your skin recently. He or she will look at the entire rash, noting where it is and how it looks in each area (for example, whether it is on 1 or both hands).

How is it treated?

Your healthcare provider may prescribe:

  • cream or ointment to stop the itching and other symptoms
  • antihistamine pills to help stop itching and any allergic reaction
  • anti-inflammatory medicine, such as prednisone, if your rash is severe.

You will need to try to avoid the substance that irritated your skin.

How long will the effects last?

With treatment, the rash should get better in a few days.

If the rash gets infected, you may need antibiotics and it will take a few days longer before your skin is completely healed. Symptoms of infection include:

  • drainage from the rash, especially yellow or green pus, or a honey-colored crust
  • increased pain in the area of the rash.

If you develop fever or see red streaks spreading from the site of the rash, contact your healthcare provider right away. These symptoms can mean rapidly worsening infection and need treatment.

How can I take care of myself?

Follow your healthcare provider's instructions. In addition, you can:

  • Avoid further irritating the area of skin where you have contact dermatitis. For example, do not scratch the skin or put cosmetics on the area.
  • Put cool, moist cloths on the areas of skin with dermatitis to help lessen itching. But do not keep the area covered. The rash will usually heal more quickly if it is left open to the air.
  • Avoid further contact with the substance that appears to cause the dermatitis.

How can I help prevent contact dermatitis?

If you know the substance that caused the dermatitis, make sure that the substance is not one of the ingredients in the cosmetic, cleaning, or other products that you use. If you are accidentally exposed to the substance, wash the exposed area right away. Wash thoroughly but gently to try to remove as much of the substance as possible without further irritating the skin.

You may need to stop using makeup one product at a time to see if any one product seems to make your rash worse.

Whether or not you know what substances give you contact dermatitis, it may be helpful to:

  • Learn to recognize poison oak, poison ivy, and ragweed, and avoid contact with them.
  • Use hypoallergenic cosmetics.
  • Pat your skin dry instead of rubbing it.
  • Try to avoid using solvents and chemicals, and wear protective gloves when you must use them.
  • Use a dishwasher, or wear gloves when you wash dishes.

Over the Counter Medications for Contact Dermatitis

  • Brand names listed as examples do not imply better quality over other brands. Generic equivalents may also exist.
  • Use only as directed on the package, unless your healthcare provider instructs you to do otherwise.
  • OTCs may interact with other medications or be potentially harmful if you have certain medical conditions. Talk to your pharmacist about options that are right for you.

OTC Medications:
example: Hydrocortisone 1% cream / ointment
example: Zinc oxide ointment
example: Aquaphor®
example: Vitamin A & D ointment
example: Calamine® Lotion

Forty Acres Pharmacy

The Forty Acres Pharmacy, located in the SSB 1.110 and operated by the UT College of Pharmacy, sells a wide variety of OTC allergy medications and treatments. Ask our pharmacists to help you choose appropriate medications or products for your symptoms.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2018 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All Rights Reserved.

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