What is Contact Dermatitis?
Contact dermatitis is a broad dermatitis category. It refers to the reaction of the skin in response to various allergens and irritants due to direct contact. Contact dermatitis is a very common form of dermatitis affliction. The most common form of contact dermatitis comes in the form of poison oak and poison ivy, both commonly known, very painful (and itchy) ailments.
Put simply, any rash that results from contact with an allergen or irritant qualifies as contact dermatitis.
Sunburn is not a form of contact dermatitis; sunlight is not considered a contact allergen that could be said to trigger contact dermatitis.
Contact dermatitis comes in several more specific forms: irritant contact dermatitis, which involves chemical contact, photocontact dermatitis, which involves ultraviolet triggers, and allergic contact dermatitis, which involves specific allergic reactions. These are detailed on their respective pages.
Who gets Contact Dermatitis?
Contact dermatitis may afflict nearly anyone. Irritants and allergens abound, and no one is invulnerable to them all (and no one has immunity to some irritants, no matter how tough their skin is!).
There are some allergens that are nigh universal, that almost everyone is sensitive to—among them poison oak and poison ivy, which will give anyone who strays too close more grief than they bargained for. Other forms of contact dermatitis are tied to very specific allergic reactions: reactions to animals such as dogs and cats, reactions to chemicals such as ammonia, reactions to agents in cosmetics such as aloe vera, and etcetera. There are a wide range of possible allergens. Thankfully, most individuals are only susceptible to a few (although there certainly are unfortunate exceptions to this rule of thumb). This only applies to dermatitis caused by hypersensitivity (allergic contact dermatitis).
Irritant contact dermatitis, in which the skin is damaged or aggravated directly by an agent, leaves far more individuals vulnerable, and is more widespread than allergic contact dermatitis as a result. Some individuals may still be more vulnerable to irritant contact dermatitis, however; it is possible to be allergic to a substance that is already irritating, and it is possible to simply be more sensitive to irritants.
The actual nature of the rash itself may be exacerbated by other factors, but these would be far too many to list. Contact dermatitis is a blanket condition that includes a number of sub-categorical afflictions, so it would be impossible to detail absolutely every variable. Specific information may be found regarding an individual’s predisposition to outbreaks contact dermatitis by examining the information surrounding specific allergens.
What causes Contact Dermatitis?
Contact dermatitis is caused by a quantifiable, observable allergic reaction to an environmental allergen or a quantifiable, observable allergic reaction to an environmental irritant. This allergen or irritant may be of almost any nature: it may be natural or artificial, solid or liquid.
The individual exposed to something they suffer from hypersensitivity to is likely to suffer from a subsequent allergic reaction. This allergic reaction may be more or less severe, but if there is an allergy present, any exposure to the allergen will almost certainly trigger an outbreak of contact dermatitis.
Some forms of contact dermatitis are systemic. That is to say, they originate from within the system. Some of these, such as baboon syndrome, are triggered when there is an initial exposure to an allergen that primes the system for a second allergen, which actually causes the outbreak. The primary exposure is always in the form of contact, but the secondary exposure may be in the form of inhalation, ingestion, injection, or anything else. This is still considered contact dermatitis due to the primary exposure, which leaves the skin with a sensitivity to the allergen.
Some forms of contact dermatitis have no connection to allergens, but are simply related to the sensitivity of the skin to irritants. These irritants may come from a variety of sources; they may be acidic or basic or neutral; they may be liquid or solid; they may be metallic or organic. In these cases, exposure irritates the skin, which subsequently breaks out in a rash.
Contact dermatitis may be exacerbated by sunlight, heat or abrasion, without them being direct causes. These are merely things that may compound contact dermatitis’ symptoms and augment them, making them more painful, more itchy, more red, or otherwise more pronounced and tangible.
What does Contact Dermatitis cause?
Contact dermatitis causes a rash. This rash may come with multiple symptoms, which are frequently concurrent; it is very possible and not at all uncommon for all possible symptoms to overlap at a time. This rash may be easy to ignore or may be agonizing, depending upon the symptoms incorporated and their individual severity.
The first of the probable symptoms is erythmia, or redness. This is the most common potential symptom that may result from contact dermatitis. Erythmia is caused by the flushing of the skin with blood as a result of the body’s immune response to the allergen or irritation. Poison ivy, poison oak and animal-related allergies all cause erythmia.
Following erythmia is pruritus, or itching. This itching may be subtle, moderate or quite severe. Pruritis may be very disruptive, as it can very easily damage the focus of one suffering from it. Scratching of this itch can almost always result in significant damage to the skin and subsequent infection. Poison ivy and similar exposures are best known for this itching.
Inflammation is a likely result. This is also coupled to the immune response, with redness. This inflammation may well become the primary symptom that requires treatment.
Pain is a very strong possibility. This pain may be due to the rash itself, or may be due to the inflammation caused by the rash. This pain can range from subtle and annoying to severe and disruptive, depending upon the allergic reaction and the severity of the rash.
Pustules are possible; pustules are small, raised bumps filled with pus. These form as a result of the body’s immune response. They can be quite uncomfortable and quite unsightly.
Hives and other symptoms may present themselves. These are a very likely source of pain and can be at great risk for future infection through excoriation (scratching).
It is possible for other symptoms to arise as well, including the scaling and flaking of the skin (much like the aftermath of a sunburn). It is possible that the skin may feel hot and tight, as though it were being pulled taut.
Very severe cases of contact dermatitis may leave an individual quite debilitated. While most cases of contact dermatitis are not so severe, the rash caused can escalate in severity. This grows more and more true the larger the rash is (and full-body rashes due to full-body exposure are not unheard of).
How serious is Contact Dermatitis?
Contact dermatitis may range in seriousness from unnoticed, to mild annoyance, to five-alarm medical emergency. There are so many very different forms of contact dermatitis that it is very difficult to assign severity to it. Generally, contact dermatitis is worth at least a consultation to analyze the allergy, especially if an individual was not previously aware they were allergic to anything that could provoke a case of dermatitis.
Contact dermatitis does have a tendency to be simply annoying. With poison ivy and poison oak used as the standard, it can be said that contact dermatitis is primarily very uncomfortable, but not life threatening except in cases of extreme medical exigency and complication.
What does Contact Dermatitis treatment look like?
Contact dermatitis treatment generally consists of removing an individual from the source of the contact dermatitis outbreak. This may be more complicated than it sounds. A very large number of cases of contact dermatitis are brought on by chemicals and items that an individual is exposed to in their day-to-day. Contact dermatitis may arise from chemicals that an individual works with on a daily basis at work, and these could range from anything from particular types of paint to particular types of hand sanitizer to latex gloves to animals. In particularly severe individuals, simply shaking the hand of someone who has previously had contact with an allergen source (for instance, a dog or a cat) may trigger an outbreak.
Because of this, an individual may be unable to get away from the source of their allergens due to their financial needs. They may be unable or unwilling to give up their jobs, which would be required to eliminate their dermatitis. Alternatively, they may be unable to determine when they will be exposed, leaving them unable to avoid exposure.
In the instance that simply avoiding exposure to allergens and irritants is impossible, the best next thing is to remove the allergens and irritants from the skin as soon after exposure as possible, generally with a simple scrub of soap and water (gentle, so as not to damage the skin). This is frequently sufficient to remove the would-be offensive element before it can cause any true pain and suffering.
In addition to this, removal from the source of an allergen will allow a rash to heal, but it will not actively cure it. There is almost always more to do than simply removing one from the allergen; consider poison ivy or poison oak, which can itch and burn for days or even weeks after exposure.
Because of this, symptomatic treatments are often desirable, if not necessary. Such treatments may include analgesics for pain, anti-inflammatories to reduce inflammation and swelling, anti-itch creams, lotions to help nourish and control flaky skin, etcetera. These are available over the counter. Treatment using heat and cold may be applied as appropriate to relieve symptoms or reduce swelling.
Very severe cases of contact dermatitis are possible, however. These require the intervention of a medical professional, and may frequently require a prescription medicine that is not available over the counter. Corticosteroids may be used topically or in the form of an injection to reduce inflammation and swelling (unless the rash is much more widespread due to wide exposure, in which case they may be taken orally to clear the rash up equally). Treatment with corticosteroids can clear up many of the other symptoms, including erythmia. Stronger anti-itch antihistamines may also be prescribed as necessary.
How do I know if I have Contact Dermatitis?
Contact dermatitis is easily identifiable when it rises close to immediately in response to a predetermined allergen. If one is aware they are allergic to, say, cats, and they are then exposed to a cat, the resulting rash is very easy to explain. Contact dermatitis becomes a little more difficult to elucidate when such allergies are not known in advance.
Contact dermatitis manifests as a rash that may exist to varying degrees of severity. Because so many things may possibly manifest as a rash, it may be difficult to determine whether or not a rash is a case of contact dermatitis or something else that possesses a similar rash as a symptom. Then, while contact dermatitis may be determined, it may be difficult to determine what, exactly, is the relevant allergen.