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What Is Contact Dermatitis?

What Is Contact Dermatitis?

The word dermatitis means inflammation of the skin. This condition usually presents as a red and itchy reaction resulting from the skin coming into contact with a substance, which the body recognises as "foreign". There are two types of contact dermatitis: allergic contact dermatitis and irritant contact dermatitis.

Allergic contact dermatitis results from the immune system being over-reactive to the foreign substance, usually an animal or vegetable protein. Common causes of this type of dermatitis include many poisonous plants (such as poison ivy or poison oak), metal nickel (on jewellery and pants buttons), tanning agents in leather, and latex rubber. Fragrances in soaps, shampoos, lotions, perfumes and cosmetics can also cause a reaction.

Irritant contact dermatitis usually results from contact with a substance that directly damages your skin. This condition often occurs to the hands when repeatedly exposed to chemicals, cleansers, detergents and solvents.

Signs and symptoms
Both allergic and irritant contact dermatitis can cause your skin to become:

  • red
  • inflamed
  • dry
  • cracked
  • blistered
  • thickened

Preventing and managing contact dermatitis

Avoiding the cause
The most important step in managing contact dermatitis is to identify the allergen or irritant and to avoid it. You may need to change the product that causes the dermatitis to another product safe for your skin. Check the ingredients of the new product to ensure it does not contain any allergen or irritants you are sensitive to. You may also need to call the manufacturer of the product to find out if the product is a suitable substitute.

Washing and cleaning the affected area
Upon contact with an allergen or irritant known to cause contact dermatitis, wash the area affected with lots of water and a mild soap, preferably a soap-free cleanser or a soap substitute (an emollient).

Wearing protective clothing/gear
If you are exposed to these substances due to the nature of your job, wear adequate protection, such as covered clothing or gloves, to minimise your contact with them. If you are allergic to latex rubber, wear a pair of cloth gloves under the rubber gloves. Take off your gloves from time to time as sweating may also worsen any symptoms you already have.

Using a barrier cream
Barrier creams work by creating a barrier between the irritant and your skin. If used correctly, it can protect you from being in contact with the irritant. However, do not rely on this as the sole protection from contact dermatitis.

Moisturising the affected area
Contact dermatitis can cause your skin to be dry and cracked. Using a suitable moisturiser can prevent it from being further irritated. Emollients can be used to prevent water from being lost from the outer layer of the skin. Apply an emollient after gently drying the skin after a bath. Remember to re-apply every two to three hours for very dry skin.

Treatments available

Topical corticosteroids
If your skin is mildly red and inflamed, you may use a mild corticosteroid cream to reduce the itch and redness. Different strengths of corticosteroid creams are available in the market but most of them will need a prescription from the physician. A mild corticosteroid cream can be obtained from the pharmacist, but it may not be suitable for everyone. Check with the pharmacist if you can safely manage your contact dermatitis using the corticosteroid cream or if you should be referred to a physician.

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