Skin Care 101: What is Contact Dermatitis?

Northeast Dermatology Associates poison ivy rash Skin Care 101: What is Contact Dermatitis?

You’ve probably heard of dermatitis and eczema, but you might not know that this condition has more than one cause. Contact dermatitis is a specific form of this skin condition, and knowing the condition and its causes is crucial to treating it.

Contact Dermatitis Explained

Dermatitis and eczema are terms often used to describe the same condition. It’s characterized by an area of irritation on the skin that can feel itchy. Some people with dermatitis feel a burning sensation as well. Visibly, skin affected by dermatitis is red and patchy, with slightly elevated lesions. Some people experience atopic dermatitis, which is a chronic condition. With atopic dermatitis, skin is also usually very dry. Its symptoms can vary from person to person, with many never knowing they have eczema throughout their lives. The causes of atopic dermatitis are not fully understood, but contact dermatitis can usually be explained.

Contact dermatitis is very straightforward, though the reason some people are allergic to things is not. Contact simply refers to when skin comes into contact with a foreign substance. Sometimes, the contact only lasts a moment, and other times contact dermatitis only happens with sustained exposure to a substance. The two forms of contact dermatitis are allergic and irritant contact dermatitis. With allergic contact dermatitis, allergens trigger a reaction. Common allergens include poison plants like poison ivy, poison oak and sumac, makeup, the metal nickel, certain types of jewelry and latex. While practically everyone has a reaction to poison ivy, the severity of the reaction does vary from person to person. With other allergens, many people are wholly unaffected by things like latex and nickel.

Irritant contact dermatitis can be caused by a number of foreign, harsh chemicals like bleach and other cleaners. But it can also result from constant contact with things as basic as water or food. Battery acid, pepper spray and things like that are common culprits with contact dermatitis, but if you’re often exposing a part of your body to water, the same thing can happen. Dishwashers and hairstylists often experience the condition in the form of dry, cracking hands after repeated exposure to water. In all, you can never be certain what’s causing your eczema if it isn’t as obvious as poison ivy or latex when you have a known allergy.

How to Prevent and Treat Contact Dermatitis

With many irritants, avoiding them is the best way to avoid contact dermatitis. When you’re in the woods or walking through areas of dense vegetation, you should always wear long-sleeves and pants to protect your skin from exposure to poison ivy. Wear gloves to protect yourself from harsh chemicals if you are around them during work or using them to clean. With allergic contact dermatitis, it’s not that simple. If you know what you’re allergic to, avoid these products and substances. But in some cases, jewelry or makeup you’ve worn for years can suddenly cause a reaction. The reason for this sudden onset of allergies isn’t well understood, but it’s certainly possible as we age.

The best way to treat contact dermatitis does depend on the specific cause of your condition. With allergens, your doctor may prescribe topical steroids or oral antihistamines that can help your body recover from an allergic reaction. With irritant contact dermatitis, you may have fewer options at your disposal. Sometimes, stopping future contact is the best advice you can get. Your doctor may suggest wearing gloves or protecting your skin by other means if you’re working with irritants. Many times, dermatitis should go away if contact ceases, so you may not need treatment. If your rash lasts longer than a few days, you should consult a dermatologist.

If you’ve suddenly developed a rash that you can’t explain (or even if you think you know what causes it), you should seek a physician’s advice. Don’t hesitate when it comes to your skin’s health, reach out to the dermatologists you can trust at Northeast Dermatology Associates.

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