Contact Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis is a skin rash caused by something that touches the skin and makes it irritated and inflamed. Your skin may be red, swollen, dry, and may be cracked. Blisters may form and ooze. The rash will itch.

Contact dermatitis often forms on the face and neck, backs of hands, forearms, genitals, and lower legs. But it can affect any area.

People can get contact dermatitis from lots of sources. These include:

  • Plants such as poison ivy, oak, or sumac

  • Chemicals in hair dyes and rinses, soaps, solvents, waxes, fingernail polish, and deodorants 

  • Jewelry or watchbands made of nickel or cobalt

Contact dermatitis is not passed from person to person.

Talk with your healthcare provider about what may have caused the rash. A type of allergy testing called "patch testing" may be used to discover what you are allergic to. You will need to stay away from the source of the rash in the future to prevent it from coming back.

Treatment is done to ease itching and prevent the rash from coming back. The rash should go away in a few days to a few weeks.

Home care

Your healthcare provider may prescribe medicine to ease swelling and itching. Follow all instructions when using these medicines.

General care

  • Stay away from anything that heats up your skin, such as hot showers or baths, or direct sunlight. This can make itching worse.

  • Apply cold compresses to soothe your sores to help ease your symptoms. Do this for 30 minutes 3 to 4 times a day. You can make a cold compress by soaking a cloth in cold water. Squeeze out excess water. You can add colloidal oatmeal to the water to help reduce itching. For severe itching in a small area, apply an ice pack wrapped in a thin towel. Do this for 20 minutes 3 to 4 times a day.

  • You can also try wet dressings. One way to do this is to wear a wet piece of clothing under a dry one. Wear a damp shirt under a dry shirt if your upper body is affected. This can relieve itching and prevent you from scratching the affected area.

  • You can also help ease large areas of itching by taking a lukewarm bath with colloidal oatmeal added to the water.

  • Use hydrocortisone cream for redness and irritation, unless another medicine was prescribed. Calamine lotion can also relieve mild symptoms.

  • Use oral diphenhydramine to help reduce itching. You can buy this antihistamine at drugstores and grocery stores. It can make you sleepy, so use lower doses during the daytime. Don't use diphenhydramine if you have glaucoma or have trouble urinating because of an enlarged prostate.

  • If a plant causes your rash, make sure to wash your skin and the clothes you were wearing when you came into contact with the plant. This is to wash away the plant oils that gave you the rash and prevent more or worse symptoms. If you have a pet that's been outdoors, its fur may also have oil from the plant. Bathe your pet with soap or shampoo.

  • Stay away from the substance or object that causes your symptoms. If you can’t stay away from it, wear gloves or some other type of protection

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider, or as advised.

When to seek medical advice

Call your healthcare provider or seek medical attention right away if any of these occur:

  • Spreading of the rash to other parts of your body

  • Severe swelling of your face, eyelids, mouth, throat or tongue

  • Trouble urinating due to swelling in the genital area

  • Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as advised by your provider

  • Redness or swelling that gets worse

  • Pain that gets worse

  • Foul-smelling fluid leaking from the skin

  • Yellow-brown crusts on the open blisters

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