Contact dermatitis

​Dermatitis is inflammation of the skin. There are a number of different types of dermatitis, each with their own symptoms and causes. If dermatitis is not treated, the condition can lead to bacterial or fungal infections of the skin. Specialist diagnosis and treatment of dermatitis is highly recommended.

Contact dermatitis is when something in the environment, either an irritant or an allergen, comes into contact with the skin and causes inflammation.

Contact dermatitis cannot be caught from anyone else, or spread to other people. The treatment of dermatitis varies from case to case, depending on exactly what is causing the condition and the symptoms the patient is experiencing. Corticosteroids creams may be used, or non-steroid medication can help relieve certain symptoms. Over-the-counter medications may be helpful, including those containing antihistamine to reduce itching.

Contact dermatitis occurs when the skin comes into contact with a substance that causes inflammation and redness. Such substances can either be:

  • an irritant, which directly damages the skin, or
  • an allergen, which triggers your immune system to respond in a way that affects your skin

Irritants commonly include substances such as detergents, soaps, cosmetics, perfumes, solvents, oils and certain plants. These substances may be fund at work or at home. Diagnosing exactly what is causing your irritant contact dermatitis is key to your treatment, and tests may need to be carried out on many different substances before the exact cause is found.

An allergen is something that triggers your immune system into a reaction; this can include common substances such as rubber, certain cosmetics, or nickel. Identifying the substance causing the reaction is key to treating allergic contact dermatitis; this is done by patch testing different substances to see which is causing a reaction.

By avoiding re-exposure to the substance causing your dermatitis, the skin usually clears up within a few days. However, for some people, symptoms are long-lasting and severe, adversely affecting their quality of life.

Although the different types of dermatitis each have their own symptoms, most have common indications which include redness of the skin, rashes, swelling and itching. Sometimes the inflamed skin becomes dry, blistered, thickened and cracked. This may be accompanied by a burning or stinging sensation. Contact dermatitis can affect any area of the body, although the face and hands are the most commonly affected.

Irritant symptoms sometimes appear immediately, and usually within 48 hours. Mild irritants may require frequent multiple exposure to the skin before they cause any symptoms.

Allergen symptoms often take several days to appear, so are sometimes more difficult to attribute to a particular substance.

Sometimes the affected area can become infected, which can be signalled by existing symptoms becoming suddenly worse, a discharge from your skin, increased pain, fever and generally feeling unwell.

Symptoms can include:-

  • skin redness
  • rashes
  • swelling
  • itching
  • blistering

Your doctor will usually be able to diagnose contact dermatitis by discussing your symptoms and looking at your skin. The cause of your condition may be obvious, but in many cases further tests will be required to identify the irritant or allergen. You may be referred to a specialist dermatologist to carry out these tests, or for further treatment if the cause is known but your symptoms aren’t improving with treatment.

What next?

If you are suffering with a suspected condition, you should seek the advice of your doctor who will be able to refer you to Benenden Hospital for diagnosis and treatment.

There are four ways to access treatment at Benenden Hospital which include self-funding, using private medical insurance or your Benenden membership, or through the NHS e-Referral scheme.