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What is contact dermatitis and how can it be treated?

If you have a rash on your hands, head or face, it could be that you’re suffering from contact dermatitis.

What is it?

Contact dermatitis is a form of eczema and is caused by your skin reacting to something in the environment. If you have the condition, your skin will become red, itchy, inflamed, cracked and dry. You may have small water blisters too and it can cause quite a lot of pain and discomfort.

There are two types of contact dermatitis- allergen and irritant.

Allergen contact dermatitis

If you have allergen contact dermatitis (also known as allergic contact dermatitis), your immune system thinks that it’s under attack by an allergen and this causes it to release inflammatory chemicals which results in your skin becoming red and swollen, usually 1 – 2 days after coming into contact with the allergen. An allergen is simply a substance that causes an allergic reaction.

One of the most common allergens is nickel, found in many earrings, watches, keys and buttons. Other allergens include fragrances and preservatives in cosmetics, ingredients in dyes, strong glues, rubber, cobalt and plants such as daffodils and tulips.

It’s not known what causes some people to develop allergen contact dermatitis and others to not, however, it’s thought that genetics might have a part to play.

Irritant contact dermatitis

With irritant contact dermatitis, the outer layer of your skin is damaged by a certain product. It could be a household cleaner, perfume, hair dye, washing powder, cement, disinfectant, chemical or something else. The irritant strips your skin of its natural oils and usually causes an instant reaction.

Hairdressers, cleaners and nurses are prone to having this condition, as are people who already have atopic eczema which makes their skin more sensitive.

How can it be treated?

Whichever type of contact dermatitis you have, it’s important to take action so you can stop flare ups from happening. You might be able to treat yourself or you may require medical assistance. After an attack, affected skin can take up to four weeks to return to normal.

There are various treatments available that may clear up all or some of your symptoms:

Avoid allergens/irritants – Depending on what’s causing the reaction, you should hopefully be able to stop coming into contact with the substance. For instance, if it’s nickel you could change your earrings or if it’s a bleach you use at work, switching to a different brand or wearing protective clothing might solve the problem.

Apply an emollient (moisturiser) several times a day – Emollients are designed to stop the outer layer of your skin from drying out as they provide it with a protective film.  There are a range of oils, creams and ointments available so you may need to experiment to find one that works for your skin type or use two or three emollients to target different parts of your body. If you think that the emollient itself might be causing a rash to develop, get advice from your GP.

Use topical steroid cream – If your skin is very red and inflamed your GP may prescribe a topical steroid cream (also known as topical corticosteroid cream) to bring down the swelling. They will tell you where you should apply it and how often.

Take steroid tablets – Your GP may prescribe you a course of steroid tablets for 5 – 7 days if your contact dermatitis is severe. After reviewing your skin, they may recommend a lower dose for further weeks or they may refer you to a dermatologist who can offer immunosuppressant therapy, phototherapy, alitretinoin capsules or immunosuppressant therapy.

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