What is it and how do I manage it?
Dermatitis is another name for a type of inflammation of the skin. In fact, you might see eczema called dermatitis, and the other way around. That’s because dermatitis and eczema are actually different words for the same thing. In some of these cases, eczema is more commonly used – for example atopic eczema.
However, there is one condition that is more often called dermatitis, and that’s contact dermatitis. You may occasionally see it referred to as contact eczema. This specific type of skin inflammation develops when our skin directly touches an allergen or irritant, triggering an inflammatory reaction.
There are two main types of contact dermatitis – allergic and irritant. The main symptom of contact dermatitis is itchy skin, and it can be intensely itchy. It’s natural to want to scratch to ease the itch, but that could damage the skin, making your contact dermatitis worse. This is known as the itch-scratch cycle. Knowing what type of contact dermatitis you have is important when it comes to managing your condition, but it is possible for you to have both allergic and irritant contact dermatitis at the same time.
Types of contact dermatitis
There are two main types of contact dermatitis:
Allergic contact dermatitis
Irritant contact dermatitis
General symptoms of contact dermatitis
Symptoms of contact dermatitis can depend on whether it is caused by an allergen or an irritant. You may have a few of the following symptoms:
Contact dermatitis triggers and factors
Contact dermatitis triggers can vary from person to person. These are the most common:
Allergens - indoors
Allergens - outdoors
Air conditioning and central heating
How to manage contact dermatitis
The most effective way to manage contact dermatitis is to avoid the allergen or irritant that is causing the problem. It can take between 8-12 weeks before symptoms improve. However, you may want to find some relief in between. Fortunately, you can manage contact dermatitis with products that are available over the counter from your pharmacy. If you have a severe reaction, seek medical attention immediately.
Emollients are moisturizers that can help with dryness and itching. They can come in many forms including creams, lotions, ointments or sprays. Emollients should be applied to the skin regularly, sometimes even multiple times a day. The area of coverage and frequency will change depending on your symptoms and condition, the severity and which product you are using. Always refer to the label for proper use. Having well moisturised skin can help create a barrier which can prevent flare-ups.
Applying emollients regularly can help keep you manage your contact dermatitis by:
- Leaving an oily film over the surface of the skin, helping to retain water underneath
- Helping to maintain a healthy skin barrier
- This, in turn, helps protect the skin from damaging irritants and allergens.
Itchiness is the most common contact dermatitis symptom, so finding a way to manage this itch is important. In fact, some emollients contain extra ingredients to help control itchiness. Ingredients such as oatmeal have anti-itch properties, or lauromacrogols, which relieve itch through a local anaesthetic action.
As regular soaps and cleansers can irritate the skin and cause dryness, it’s also important to consider washing with an emollient too. There are special emollients that can be used for washing just as you would use soap, or you can apply your leave-on emollient as a soap substitute. Be prepared though – while emollient soap substitutes clean effectively, they don’t lather up like regular soap. You can also add emollients to your bath.
Mild steroids creams and ointments can be bought from your pharmacy to help relieve contact dermatitis and mild-to-moderate eczema. These help manage flare-ups in atopic eczema by altering the body’s responses to inflammatory reactions. Always check the label for how to use the product correctly and safely; always check who can use the product as many over the counter steroids having limitations regarding age and pregnancy.
It’s important to know that steroids are applied differently to emollients:
- Apply very thinly and to just the affected area
- Apply once or twice a day for a maximum of 7 days
- Only apply to certain parts of the body and not to the face, eyes, broken or infected skin, genital areas or the bottom
- If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, you should speak to your doctor before using a steroid cream.
Always carry on using your emollient alongside your steroid but leave about 20-30 minutes between applying each one. It doesn’t matter which you apply first or second, as long as you wait the advised 20-30 minutes in between.
If it’s the first time you have used a steroid cream - as with any new medicine - speak to your pharmacist or doctor first to find out if it’s the right choice for you. They will also be able to give you tips on how to apply correctly.
Antihistamines can be used to help relieve the itchy skin of contact dermatitis. Although they are available in a number of different formats (such as tablets, capsules, syrups or creams), tablets or syrups are most likely to be recommended.
Ask your pharmacist or doctor for advice on taking an antihistamine that is right for you.