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Contact Dermatitis: Causes & Symptoms

Last Updated Jul 07, 2023

Contact Dermatitis: Causes & Symptoms

Do you experience intense itching, pain or a burning sensation on your skin after using a certain product, wearing jewellery or spritzing perfume? Have these symptoms increased over time, too? This may indicate contact dermatitis, also known as eczema, contact urticaria or atopic dermatitis. Get to know the symptoms, causes and types of contact dermatitis, as well as how to treat and manage this condition.  

What is Contact Dermatitis?

Contact dermatitis is a skin condition that occurs when the skin comes into contact with an irritating substance or allergen. It is characterised by an itchy rash on the skin that can result in blisters or sores that ooze or crust over.

Contact dermatitis can appear anywhere on the surface of the body and may affect only a small part, like your finger, or it can cover large areas. The parts most commonly affected are the hands (including the fingers), neck, face (especially around the eyes) and feet.

People with contact dermatitis can suffer mild reactions or severe inflammation, which makes it difficult for them to carry out day-to-day activities.

The Prevalence and Advancements in Contact Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis is a widespread skin condition that affects millions of individuals worldwide. Understanding the prevalence of this condition and staying updated on the latest research findings can provide valuable insights into its impact and potential advancements in treatment options.

Statistics on the prevalence of contact dermatitis

According to recent studies, contact dermatitis affects approximately 15 to 20 per cent of the general population, making it one of the most common skin disorders. These statistics emphasise the significance of raising awareness about the condition and its management strategies.

Research findings on contact dermatitis

Ongoing research in the field of contact dermatitis has yielded promising findings. Scientists have been uncovering new triggers and risk factors associated with the condition. For instance, recent studies have identified certain metals, such as nickel and chromium, as common allergens. Additionally, researchers have discovered a link between specific genetic factors and an individual's susceptibility to contact dermatitis. These advancements highlight the importance of personalised approaches to treatment and prevention.

By incorporating relevant statistics and research findings into discussions about contact dermatitis, healthcare professionals and patients can gain a better understanding of the condition's prevalence and the ongoing efforts to improve its management.

Unraveling the Causes and Risk Factors of Contact Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis can be triggered by a wide range of substances, making it essential to explore the diverse causes and risk factors associated with this condition. By delving deeper into these factors, we can gain insight into the potential triggers and take necessary precautions to minimise the risk of developing contact dermatitis.

Expanded Causes

In addition to the commonly known triggers like soaps and detergents, contact dermatitis can be caused by exposure to various chemicals, plants, metals, cosmetics, and medications. It is crucial to identify these specific irritants or allergens to reduce the chances of developing a reaction. Moreover, understanding how different occupations or hobbies can increase the risk of contact dermatitis enables individuals to take preventive measures in their respective environments.

About 20 per cent of contact dermatitis cases in adults involve contact with nickel. Nickel is found in the following:

  • Jewellery
  • Watches
  • Mobile phones
  • Coins
  • Keys
  • Metal clothing zippers and rivets

In some cases, contact dermatitis can result from contact with both a primary irritant and a secondary allergen. For example, contact with bleach may initially damage the skin but around 10 per cent of those individuals will develop contact dermatitis when they later contact nickel. It is also possible for contact dermatitis to be caused by a contact allergy.

Individual Susceptibility and Genetic Factors

Research has shown that some individuals are more prone to contact dermatitis due to individual susceptibility factors. Genetic predispositions can play a role in determining an individual's reaction to certain substances. By emphasising these factors, you can better comprehend why some individuals are more susceptible to contact dermatitis and how they can seek personalised preventive strategies.

What are the Symptoms of Contact Dermatitis?

In contact dermatitis, symptoms usually develop within 48 hours of exposure to a foreign substance. The skin condition may be accompanied by a number of symptoms, including:

  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Itching
  • Scaly skin
  • Oozing blisters that crust
  • Pain that vary from case to case

The symptoms may become more intense after further contact with the allergen. This is a feature of contact dermatitis known as 'reactivity'. Even brief exposure to an allergen may lead to a flare-up of symptoms. Once contact with the allergen is stopped there will be a period of time before symptoms subside. This period is known as 'de-sensitization' and it may take several weeks or months for the skin to recover.

What are Different Types of Contact Dermatitis?

There are several forms of dermatitis, each triggered by a different causative substance or group of potential allergens. Among the most common are:

Irritant contact dermatitis

This is the most common type of contact dermatitis that occurs when the skin comes into contact with irritating chemicals such as harsh soaps, metals, cosmetics products, jewellery, dishwashing liquids and rubber products.

Irritant contact dermatitis does not cause symptoms until the skin is exposed to water. This means symptoms, such as oozing itchy skin, usually appear or worsen when you wash or bathe, or in humid conditions like a shower. Although frequent handwashing is recommended to keep pathogens at bay, it is unfortunately the reason for irritant contact dermatitis.

Allergic contact dermatitis

Also known as contact eczema and allergic contact urticaria, this inflammatory reaction is triggered when the skin is exposed to a foreign substance. It does not matter whether the offending substance penetrated the skin or was simply worn over it. So long as it comes into contact with the skin, it will cause a skin reaction.

Sensitization contact dermatitis

This type of skin problem occurs when you first contact a substance and there is no reaction. But after repeated contact (even several days or months later), your skin becomes sensitised. You then react to further contact with the allergen. The symptoms of sensitisation contact dermatitis are usually confined to areas where there has been contact with the allergen such as on the hands and face.

It is common for people who suffer from this type of contact dermatitis to have persistent rashes around their eyes after using perfumed cosmetic products. This type of contact dermatitis usually stops once you have stopped contact with the allergen.

Photocontact dermatitis

The least common form of contact dermatitis that occurs when plants, especially poisonous ones, such as poison ivy and poison sumac, release chemicals onto the skin and then it is exposed to sunlight. It may result in severe reactions such as large blisters; however they won't itch and will eventually go away.

How is Contact Dermatitis Diagnosed?

Due to the complexity of contact dermatitis symptoms, doctors may have difficulty determining whether your skin rash is an irritant contact dermatitis, an allergic dermatitis, or another type of condition. Diagnostic procedures usually include taking the patient's history of contact with certain substances or performing a skin biopsy. Patients with contact dermatitis are often referred to a skin specialist to determine the cause.

An allergy specialist or a dermatologist usually performs patch testing, where they expose a small area of the skin to an allergen. Your skin's reaction to it will tell you if you have food allergies, nickel allergies, cosmetic allergies or whatnot, and also determine the treatment you need. 

Preventing Contact Dermatitis: Practical Tips for Healthy Skin

Taking preventive measures can significantly reduce the risk of developing contact dermatitis and help maintain healthy skin. Let's look at these practical tips that you can incorporate into your daily routine to prevent contact dermatitis and promote healthy skin.

Wear Protective Gear

When handling chemicals, cleaning products or other potential irritants, it is crucial to wear appropriate protective gear. Gloves made of hypoallergenic materials, such as nitrile or vinyl, can create a barrier between the skin and irritants. Additionally, using long sleeves and pants when working with known triggers can provide added protection.

Choose Hypoallergenic Products

Opt for hypoallergenic personal care products, including soaps, detergents, shampoos and cosmetics. These products are formulated to minimise the risk of skin irritation and allergic reactions. Look for labels that indicate products are fragrance-free, dye-free and free of common allergens to reduce the chances of triggering contact dermatitis.

Take Precautions with Plants

Certain plants, such as poison ivy, poison oak or nettles, can cause contact dermatitis. When working in the garden or outdoors, wear gloves, long sleeves and pants to minimise direct contact with these plants. Washing hands thoroughly after gardening can also help remove any potential allergens.

Identify and Avoid Personal Triggers

Pay attention to your body's response to different substances or environments. Keep a diary to track potential triggers and patterns of skin reactions. If you notice specific substances, fabrics, metals or activities that consistently lead to skin irritation, take steps to minimise or avoid them. Being aware of your personal triggers is key to preventing contact dermatitis.

Create an Allergen-Free Environment

Maintaining a clean and allergen-free environment is essential for preventing contact dermatitis. Regularly clean surfaces, particularly those that come into frequent contact with the skin. Use mild, hypoallergenic cleaning products to minimise the risk of irritation. Consider replacing carpets with hardwood or tile flooring, as carpets can harbor dust mites and allergens.

Moisturise Regularly

Keeping the skin moisturised is crucial in preventing contact dermatitis. Moisturisers help maintain the skin's natural barrier function, reducing the risk of irritants penetrating the skin. Opt for fragrance-free and hypoallergenic moisturisers and apply them after bathing or washing hands to lock in moisture.

Exploring the Effects of Natural Therapies on Contact Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis has prompted researchers to explore various natural therapies as potential alternatives or complements to conventional treatments. Below is a summary of some key clinical trials and studies that have investigated the effects of natural therapies on contact dermatitis. While more research is needed to establish their efficacy, these studies provide valuable insights into the potential benefits of natural therapies in managing this condition.

  1. Aloe Vera: Aloe vera, a plant renowned for its soothing properties, has been a subject of interest in contact dermatitis research. A randomised controlled trial published in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology in 2018 examined the effects of aloe vera gel on allergic contact dermatitis. The study found that topical application of aloe vera gel significantly reduced inflammation and improved symptoms compared to a placebo.

  2. Chamomile: Chamomile, known for its anti-inflammatory and calming effects, has also been investigated for its potential benefits in contact dermatitis. A study published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology in 2019 examined the efficacy of chamomile extract in reducing symptoms of contact dermatitis. The results showed that the application of chamomile extract significantly reduced itching, erythema and overall severity of the condition.

  3. Oatmeal: Oatmeal has long been recognised for its soothing properties on irritated skin. A study published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology in 2017 evaluated the effectiveness of colloidal oatmeal in managing contact dermatitis. The findings indicated that using colloidal oatmeal-based products led to a significant reduction in symptoms, including itching and dryness, and improved the skin barrier function.

  4. Tea Tree Oil: Tea tree oil, known for its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, has been explored as a potential treatment for contact dermatitis. A randomised controlled trial published in the Australasian Journal of Dermatology in 2019 investigated the effects of tea tree oil in individuals with allergic contact dermatitis. The results showed that applying tea tree oil reduced the severity of symptoms and improved the overall condition of the skin.

Preventing contact dermatitis involves adopting simple yet effective preventive measures in daily life. In case you acquire it, it's worth noting that there is no single treatment that works for all contact dermatitis. Depending on the severity of the condition, your doctor may recommend using mild soap, topical corticosteroids or antibiotic cream. Symptoms usually disappear after a few days or weeks.

To prevent contact dermatitis, it is important to avoid coming into contact with agents known to cause it. However, a TCM practitioner may also advise you to strengthen your immune system, as this is your best defense against any type of contact allergy.

Originally published on Nov 08, 2021

FAQs About Contact Dermatitis

Why is contact dermatitis worse at night?

During the night, the body produces less cortisol, a steroid hormone that regulates stress levels and reduces inflammation. This leaves the body with little defense against the symptoms of eczema, hence the worsening of symptoms at night.

Will my contact dermatitis ever go away?

Yes it will. Applying the appropriate treatment to your contact dermatitis will make it disappear in two to three weeks' time. The only way to keep it away for good is to avoid coming into contact with the allergen or substance that triggers it.

Can dermatitis be caused by stress?

Yes. Contact dermatitis is caused not only by constant exposure to skin irritants but also by high levels of stress and anxiety. Eczema flares up when these factors are present, and if left uncontrolled, you will become trapped in a cycle of itchy skin that weeps, burns, and crusts.

When should I seek medical advice for contact dermatitis?

It is recommended to seek medical advice if contact dermatitis symptoms persist, worsen or significantly affect your daily life. A healthcare professional can provide an accurate diagnosis, prescribe appropriate treatments and offer personalised advice for managing the condition.

Can contact dermatitis be cured completely?

Contact dermatitis is a manageable condition, but it may not be completely cured. By identifying and avoiding triggers, practising good skin hygiene and following treatment recommendations, you can effectively control symptoms and minimise flare-ups.

What are the common triggers of contact dermatitis?

Contact dermatitis can be triggered by various substances, including chemicals, metals, plants, cosmetics and certain fabrics. It is important to identify and avoid these triggers to prevent flare-ups.

How can I protect myself from contact dermatitis at work?

To protect yourself from contact dermatitis at work, it is essential to wear appropriate protective gear, such as gloves and long sleeves, when handling irritants or allergens. Additionally, following proper hygiene practices and keeping work areas clean can help minimise the risk.

Are there any occupations or industries that are at a higher risk of contact dermatitis?

Certain occupations, such as healthcare, hairdressing, cleaning and construction, have a higher risk of contact dermatitis due to frequent exposure to potential irritants and allergens. It is crucial for individuals working in these industries to take preventive measures and follow proper safety protocols.

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