Contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis is a type of eczema triggered by contact with a particular substance. Eczema is the name for a group of conditions that cause skin to become irritated and dry. See your GP if you have constant, frequent or severe symptoms of contact dermatitis.

Symptoms of contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis can cause skin to become:

  • red
  • inflamed (irritated)
  • blistered
  • dry
  • thickened and cracked

Symptoms can affect any part of the body, but most commonly affect the hands and face.

Symptoms caused by an irritant usually appear within 48 hours, or even immediately.

If you can avoid being re-exposed to the substance responsible for the reaction, your skin will usually clear up within a few days or weeks.

Some people experience severe and long-lasting symptoms, which may affect their quality of life.

When to seek medical advice

See your GP if you have persistent, recurrent or severe symptoms of contact dermatitis. They can try to identify the cause and suggest treatment.

Your GP may refer you to a dermatologist (a doctor who specialises in treating skin conditions) for further tests if:

  • the substance causing your contact dermatitis can't be identified
  • your symptoms aren't responding to treatment

Causes of contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis can be caused by:

  • an irritant – a substance that directly damages the outer layer of skin
  • an allergen – a substance that causes the immune system to respond in a way that affects the skin

Contact dermatitis is most commonly caused by irritants such as soaps and detergents, solvents or regular contact with water.

Treating contact dermatitis

If you can successfully avoid the irritants or allergens that trigger your symptoms, your skin will eventually clear up.

As this isn't always possible, your GP will advise you of the best treatment for you. Treatment options include moisturisers and steroid ointments and creams.

Preventing contact dermatitis

The best way to prevent contact dermatitis is to avoid contact with the allergens or irritants that cause your symptoms.

If you can't avoid contact, you can take steps to reduce the risk of the allergens or irritants causing symptoms, including:

  • clean your skin – if you come into contact with an allergen or irritant, rinse the affected skin with warm water and an emollient as soon as possible
  • use gloves to protect your hands – but take them off every now and again, as sweating can make any symptoms worse; you may find it useful to wear cotton gloves underneath rubber gloves if the rubber also irritates you
  • change products that irritate your skin – check the ingredients on make-up or soap to make sure it doesn't contain any irritants or allergens; in some cases, you may need to contact the manufacturer, or check online to get this information
  • apply emollients often and in large amounts – these keep your skin hydrated and help protect it from allergens and irritants; you could also use emollient soap substitutes rather than regular bar or liquid soaps, as these can dry out your skin

Other types of eczema

Other types of eczema include:

  • atopic eczema (also called atopic dermatitis) – the most common type of eczema; it often runs in families and is linked to other conditions, such as asthma and hay fever
  • discoid eczema – circular or oval patches of eczema on the skin
  • varicose eczema – this most often affects the lower legs; caused by problems with the flow of blood through the leg veins

 

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

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