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What is Dermatitis?

Dermatitis is swollen or inflamed skin caused by touching something. It can be caused by an allergy, but many times can occur due to genetics, such as eczema.

In an allergic contact dermatitis:

  • Something that irritates your skin, such as a chemical or cleaning product. The product can break through the normal barrier of the skin.
  • Something you’re allergic to, such as a perfume or poison ivy. This activates your body’s immune system.


The main symptom of dermatitis is a rash. The skin may be red, chapped, or cracked. It may also be painful and itchy.

Eczema can be located anywhere, but is commonly found on arms and legs.

Contact allergies most likely occur on the face (especially the eyelids) or the hands.

When to See a Doctor

See a healthcare provider if your rash does not get better within 2 weeks, or if it gets worse.


The main causes of dermatitis related to irritants include:

  • Repeated or daily contact with products like soapy water, cleansers, or rubbing alcohol. (Laundry detergents, however, rarely cause dermatitis.)
  • Some products like bleach or acid can cause severe dermatitis after a single contact.

The main causes of dermatitis related to allergy include reactions to:

  • The plant oil found in poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac
  • Nickel, a metal used in jewelry
  • Formaldehyde, found in clothing and nail polish
  • Fragrances, found in perfume and cosmetics

It’s not always easy to tell what triggered the reaction.

Diagnosis and Tests

Your healthcare provider will look at your rash and ask questions about your activities and medical history. In some cases your healthcare provider might do a skin allergy test to find out if your rash is caused by an irritant or an allergy.


The first step of treatment is to avoid the item that’s causing the rash. For example, wear gloves to protect hands from irritating products, or use unscented lotions.

Other treatments can include:

  • Protect your hands with thick moisturizing cream.
  • Using steroid creams or ointments. You can buy hydrocortisone 1% cream without a prescription. Stronger creams require a prescription.
  • Applying wet dressings to rashes caused by plants. To create a wet dressing, put on a layer of damp clothing so it touches your rash. Then put on a layer of dry clothing over the top. This helps keep the skin from crusting, any can relieve itching and prevent scratching.
  • In severe cases, a healthcare provider may recommend a prescription medicine.


To prevent dermatitis, learn what causes you to get a rash and avoid contact with it.

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