Contact Dermatitis

Contact Dermatitis is a topic covered in the 5-Minute Emergency Consult.

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  • Irritant:
    • Immediate eczematous eruption (superficial inflammatory process primarily in epidermis)
    • Most common type of dermatitis
    • Trigger substance itself directly damages the skin resulting in nonimmunologic inflammatory reaction with erythema, dryness, cracking, or fissuring
    • Usually owing to repeated exposure to mild irritant (e.g., water, soaps, heat, friction)
    • Lesions itch or burn:
      • Usually gradual onset with indistinct borders
      • Most often seen on hands
      • May see vesicles or fissures
      • Dry, red, and rough skin
      • Common irritants include cement, hair dyes, wet diapers, rubber gloves, shampoos, frequent hand washing
  • Allergic:
    • Delayed (type IV) hypersensitivity reaction (requires prior sensitization)
    • Allergen-induced immune response
    • Local edema, vesicles, erythema, pruritus, or burning
    • Usually corresponds to exact distribution of contact (e.g., watchband)
    • Onset usually within 12–48 hr with prior sensitization; may take 14–21 days for primary exposure
    • Common sources: Nickel, gold, neomycin, bacitracin, preservatives, fragrances, dyes, poison ivy
  • Photocontact:
    • Interaction between an otherwise harmless substance on the skin and UV light
    • Common sources: Shaving lotions, sunscreens, sulfa ointments, perfumes.

Pediatric Considerations
  • Allergic contact dermatitis is less frequent in children, especially infants, than in adults
  • Major sources of pediatric contact allergy:
    • Metals, shoes, preservatives, or fragrances in cosmetics, topical medications, and plants
    • Diaper dermatitis: Prototype for irritant contact dermatitis in children
  • Circumoral dermatitis: Seen in infants and small children; may result from certain foods (irritant or allergic reaction)


  • Irritant (80% of contact dermatitis), e.g.:
    • Soaps, solvents
    • Chemicals
    • Certain foods
    • Urine, feces
    • Diapers
    • Continuous or repeated exposure to moisture (hand washing)
    • Course paper, glass, and wool fibers
    • Shoe dermatitis: Common; identify by lesions limited to distal dorsal surface of foot usually sparing the interdigital spaces
  • Allergic:
    • Plants, poison ivy, oak, sumac (rhus dermatitis):
      • Most common form of allergic contact dermatitis in North America
      • Direct: Reaction to oleoresin urushiol from plant
      • Indirect: Contact with pet or clothes with oleoresin on surface or fur or in smoke from burning leaves
      • Lesions may appear up to 3 days after exposure with prior sensitization (12–21 days after primary exposure) and may persist up to 3 wk
      • Fluid from vesicles is not contagious and does not produce new lesions
      • Oleoresin on pets or clothes remains contagious until removed
    • Cement (prolonged exposure may result in severe alkali burn)
    • Metals (especially nickel)
    • Solvents, epoxy
    • Chemicals in rubber (e.g., elastic waistbands) or leather
    • Lotions, cosmetics
    • Topical medications (e.g., neomycin, hydrocortisone, benzocaine, paraben)
    • Some foods
    • Ability to respond to certain antigens is probably genetically determined
  • Photodermatitis:
    • Inflammatory reaction from exposure to irritant (frequently plant sap) and sunlight
    • Typically no response in absence of sunlight

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