HealthSheets™


Understanding Contact Dermatitis

Hand placing ice pack on inner forearm of opposite arm.
A cool, moist compress can help reduce itching.
Contact dermatitis is a common type of skin rash. It’s caused by something that touches the skin and makes it irritated and inflamed. It can occur on skin on any part of the body, such as the face, neck, hands, arms, and legs. Contact dermatitis is not spread from person to person.  Often, the reaction of contact dermatitis occurs 1 to 2 days after contact with the offending agent.

How to say it

COHN-tact der-muh-TY-tis

What causes contact dermatitis?

It’s caused by something that irritates the skin, or that creates an allergic reaction on the skin. People can get contact dermatitis from many kinds of things. These include:

  • Plant oils in poison ivy, oak, and sumac

  • Chemicals in household cleaners, solvents, and glue

  • Chemicals in makeup, soap, laundry detergent, perfume, acne cream, and hair products

  • Certain medicines, such as neomycin, bacitracin, benzocaine, and thimerosal

  • Metals such as nickel, found in some jewelry and watch bands 

  • The sticky material on the back of bandages and tape (adhesive)

  • Things that can cause tiny breaks in the skin, such as wood, fiberglass, metal tools, and plant thorns

  • Rubber latex in surgical gloves and other medical supplies

Dermatitis can also be caused by the skin being damp for long periods of time. This can happen from washing your hands too often, or working with wet materials.

Symptoms of contact dermatitis

Symptoms can include skin that is:

  • Blistered

  • Burning

  • Cracked

  • Dry

  • Itchy

  • Painful

  • Red

  • Rough, thickened, and leathery

  • Swollen

  • Warm

The blisters may ooze fluid and form crusts.

Treatment for contact dermatitis

Treatment is done to help relieve itching and reduce inflammation. The rash should go away in a few days to a few weeks. Treatments include:

  • Cool, moist compress. Use a clean damp cloth. Put it on the area for 20 to 30 minutes, 5 to 6 times a day for the first 3 days.

  • Steroid cream or ointment. You can apply this medicine several times a day on clean skin.

  • Oral corticosteroid. Your healthcare provider may prescribe this medicine if you have severe skin symptoms on a large part of your body.  Your healthcare provider may give you a steroid injection instead of pills.

  • Oral antihistamine. This medicine can help reduce itching.

  • Colloidal oatmeal bath. Soaking in water with colloidal oatmeal can help soothe skin.

  • Plain cream, lotion, or ointment. Cream, lotion, or ointment without medicine can help to soothe and protect your skin.

Living with contact dermatitis

Talk with your healthcare provider about what may have caused your contact dermatitis. Patch testing may help you figure out what caused the rash so you can avoid further contact with it. Once you learn what caused your rash, make sure to avoid that substance. If your skin comes into contact with it again, make sure to wash your skin right away. If you can’t avoid the substance, wear gloves or other protective clothing before you touch it. Or use a cream, lotion, or ointment to protect your skin.

When to call your healthcare provider

Call your healthcare provider right away if you have any of these:

  • Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as directed

  • Symptoms that don’t get better, or get worse

  • New symptoms

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