Rash (contact dermatitis)

A rash – or contact dermatitis – is caused by a substance you’ve been exposed to that irritates the skin or triggers an allergic reaction. 

A woman scratching a rash on her back

The most common type of rash is irritant contact dermatitis – this is a nonallergic reaction to a substance that damages the protective outer layer of the skin. Irritants include cleaning materials, personal care products such as deodorants, soaps and cosmetics, dust, and certain plants. 

Allergic contact dermatitis occurs as an immune response to allergens such as nickel, ingredients in medication, poison ivy and latex rubber. Causes may also be symptomatic and indicative of certain viral, bacterial and fungal infections. 

What are its symptoms?

Contact dermatitis will usually affect the area on the body that has been exposed to the irritant or allergen. Its symptoms, which can appear within minutes or a few hours of exposure, include the following:

  • Bumps on the skin
  • Redness
  • Itching that may range from mild to severe
  • Dry, cracked or scaly skin
  • Blisters
  • Swelling
  • Burning
  • Tenderness

It’s advisable to see your doctor if the rash becomes so uncomfortable you’re unable to sleep and it affects your normal routine; if you’re in pain; if the rash spreads; or if it affects your genital area or face. 

Symptoms that should be seen to immediately include infected skin that has blisters that are oozing pus; rash that is accompanied by a fever; you have pain in your lungs, eyes, nasal passages or mouth.

How is it diagnosed? 

Your doctor will be able to make a diagnosis based on your medical history and a physical examination, checking the intensity and pattern of the rash and your other symptoms. These will provide clues as to whether your rash is being caused by an allergen or an irritant. 

Your doctor may also suggest an allergy test, called a patch test, which can identify particular allergens.    

What are your treatment options? 

Contact dermatitis treatment includes the following:

  • Avoiding the irritant or allergen once it has been identified
  • Steroid creams
  • Topical ointments that help to repair skin damage and prevent relapses
  • Oral medications, such as corticosteroids to help with inflammation; antihistamines to relieve itchiness; or antibiotics if your rash has resulted in a bacterial infection. 

Home treatments include:

  • Washing the affected area with water and mild soap – this may provide immediate relief.
  • Applying a small amount of a hydrocortisone cream to the affected area. This is a mild corticosteroid that can help reduce inflammation and itching.
  • A non-perfumed moisturiser applied several times a day may help to repair the protective layer of the skin that has been damaged. Ask you Clicks pharmacist to suggest a suitable cream.

Can it be prevented? 

Once the cause of the contact dermatitis has been established, follow these preventative measures to avoid recurring rash:

  • Avoid the irritant or allergen
  • Wash your skin as soon as you come into contact with the offending substance. It may also be necessary to wash the clothes you were wearing.
  • Wear protective clothing, especially if the contact dermatitis is occupation-related, that is, gloves, goggles and/or masks.
  • Use barrier creams or gels as these can protect the outer layer of the skin.
  • Use moisturiser daily to keep skin in good condition and for protection.

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in June 2016