Contact Dermatitis

What is contact dermatitis?

Contact dermatitis is an inflammation of the surface of the skin caused by exposure either to an irritant or an allergen - something your skin is allergic to - like poison ivy.

What causes it?

Factors that contribute to the development of contact dermatitis include genetic predisposition, duration of exposure, friction, pressure, heat, cold or the presence of other skin diseases, especially eczema, which is often exacerbated by allergies. Pinpointing the causative agent can be difficult. It is important to consider the total environment: home, work, hobbies, medications, clothing, cosmetics, etc. If the dermatitis is caused by an allergen, skin patch testing for specific identification of causative allergens may be helpful and can be performed by an allergist. For Brown students, a referral can be made through Health Services.

Are there different types?

Irritant contact dermatitis
Any substance can be an irritant to the skin, especially if the concentration and duration of contact are sufficient. Most irritants are chemical in nature. Irritants such as soaps, detergents, deodorants, lotions, and perfumes often require repeated or prolonged contact to produce inflammation. Stronger irritants such as acids or alkalis are so damaging that they will injure the skin immediately on contact. If daily exposure to mild irritants is continued, normal skin may become hardened or tolerant to this trauma and contact may be continued without further evidence of irritation.

Allergic contact dermatitis
Allergic contact dermatitis, on the other hand, requires skin contact with an allergen (i.e. any product, plant or chemical to which you are allergic). The oils of plants like poison ivy or sumac, and metals like gold and nickel are very common allergens. The reaction is typically delayed. A period as long as 5 to 21 days may elapse after your first exposure to the allergen before you see a reaction. However, the reaction time after re-exposure typically occurs within 12 days.

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What are the symptoms?

The primary symptom of contact dermatitis is itching. Other signs and symptoms usually include some combination of cracking and dryness of the skin, redness, inflammation, swelling, and blister formation with weeping.

How is it treated?

Treatment of contact dermatitis should begin as soon as eruption is identified. The first priority should be to avoid the offending agent if it is known. “Burrows Cool Soaks” (a drying, soothing solution) may relieve itching and is especially good if there are weeping blisters. Over-the-counter products such as calamine lotion, hydro-cortisone 1% cream, or Benadryl may be tried first for mild conditions. Caladryl lotion should not be used as it may cause later sensitivity to oral Benadryl. If persistent, worsening or severe, prescription treatments are available after evaluation by a medical provider. If contact dermatitis has occurred from exposure to strong irritants, forceful and prolonged flushing with water should be used immediately, followed by a visit to your provider (Brown students should call Health Services at 401.863-3953 for an appointment).

Can I prevent it?

To prevent reactions to allergens, such as poison ivy, wash skin thoroughly as soon as possible after exposure, and attempt to identify allergic agents so that future exposure can be avoided.

Can I make an appointment at Health Services?

If you are a Brown student and you are concerned about dermatitis, you can make a confidential appointment at Health Services by calling 401.863-3953.  Health Services provides a range of services including general health care, inpatient services and emergency medical care. You can request a medical provider by gender or by name. We are located at 13 Brown Street on the corner of Brown and Charlesfield Streets.

Links you can use

To learn more about contact dermatitis, you can visit:


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Disclaimer: BWell Health Promotion is part of Health Services at Brown University. Health Promotion maintains this site as a resource for Brown students. This site is not intended to replace consultation with your medical providers. No site can replace real conversation. Health Promotion offers no endorsement of and assumes no liability for the currency, accuracy, or availability of the information on the sites we link to or the care provided by the resources listed. Health Services staff are available to treat and give medical advice to Brown University students only. If you are not a Brown student, but are in need of medical assistance please call your own health care provider or in case of an emergency, dial 911. Please contact us if you have comments, questions or suggestions.