Dermatitis refers skin inflammation that is characterized by the appearance of a red rash and itchiness. The affected skin also shows swelling and dryness. Scaling may be visible and patches of skin may even peel off. Dermatitis is a broad term that refers to a variety of inflammatory skin conditions.
What is Irritant Contact Dermatitis?
Irritant contact dermatitis refers to a types of dermatitis that occurs when the skin comes in contact with certain substances that are irritants to the skin. Irritant contact dermatitis is also described as chemical rashes, skin sensitivity, housewives’ eczema, hand dermatitis or dishpan hands but these are not very specific medical terms, and can refer to other related skin conditions as well.
Read more on hand dermatitis.
The skin is a barrier that protects the internal tissues from the outside environment. The outer layers of the skin are dead, which makes the barrier very effective in most circumstances. However, various factors such as exposure to harsh chemicals, mechanical injuries, microbe infiltration, and exposure to UV light may result in a breach of the skin barrier.
Once the skin barrier is breached, an inflammatory response occurs within the underlying tissue. This inflammation is a natural protective response of the body towards the injury, and is aimed at preventing the spread of the injury. The affected skin area becomes read, warm, and swollen. Pain and itching may also occur. Irritant contact dermatitis is mostly associated with a chemical irritant. However, repeated mechanical abrasions could also lead to irritant contact dermatitis.
Irritants vs Allergens
Irritant contact dermatitis should not be confused with allergic contact dermatitis. Even though both are caused by the contact of skin with certain offending substances and result in similar symptoms, they are two separate conditions. Allergic contact dermatitis is caused by an allergic response of the body to an allergen on the skin. The specific allergens causing allergic contact dermatitis vary on an individual basis.
On the other hand, the skin inflammation in irritant contact dermatitis is due to chemical or mechanical damage to the skin rather than an allergic reaction to the offending substance. Also, unlike allergic contact dermatitis, irritant contact dermatitis can affect any individual. However, some individuals are more sensitive to certain substances. In addition, not everybody may be exposed to the offending irritant and therefore never experience any reaction.
Signs and Symptoms
The main feature of irritant contact dermatitis (as well as allergic contact dermatitis) is the occurrence of skin rashes. These skin rashes may display the following signs and symptoms:
- Itching is a common symptom that may start even before the rash appears and varies in intensity.
- Redness of skin in the area of the rash. Raised bumps may also appear in the affected area.
- The affected skin area may become dry and cracked. The affected skin patches may also start peeling off.
- Blisters may form in the affected skin area. Some fluid may also ooze out of these blisters and form a crust.
- The affected skin area is usually demarcated clearly and is localized only to the region that came in contact with the irritant.
- Tenderness and pain may be present in the affected area. Itching may also occur.
The skin rash and itching in the affected area may begin either immediately or within a few days of contact with the skin irritant. The signs and symptoms improve when contact with the irritant ceases. The most common sites of irritant contact dermatitis are the hands. This is because we use our hands to explore the physical world around us, making it more likely that we will touch some irritant. However, contact irritant dermatitis may also occur in other areas of the body.
If the skin rash in irritant contact dermatitis is not treated, it may lead to secondary bacterial and fungal infections. This could give rise to other signs and symptoms such as swelling of the area, pus, fever, and a fast spreading rash. These signs and symptoms are most commonly caused by secondary bacterial infections. Secondary fungal infections usually cause less intense signs and symptoms.
Causes of Irritant Contact Dermatitis
The most common cause of irritant contact dermatitis is exposure of skin to certain chemicals. However, repeated mechanical abrasions of the skin can also cause this condition. The intensity of dermatitis depends on the duration and frequency of exposure to the skin irritant, the strength and quantity of the skin irritant, climatic conditions, and the sensitivity of the individual.
Read more on eczema.
The following are some of the common causes of irritant contact dermatitis:
- Soaps, bleaches, detergents and similar cleaning chemicals are one of the most common causes of irritant contact dermatitis.
- Urine and feces that accumulate on the skin in babies wearing diapers can cause irritant contact dermatitis. This condition is commonly known as diaper rash. Babies also drool a lot, and the saliva can cause a rash around the mouth area.
- Strong chemicals such as acids and alkalis can cause skin burns and irritant contact dermatitis upon contact with the skin.
- Cosmetics are another class of chemicals that can cause irritant contact dermatitis.
- Mechanical causes of irritant contact dermatitis include jewelry (such as bracelets, chains, and watches) and tight clothing. These can lead to skin irritation as a result of chaffing. The skin may also be sensitive to certain metals. In addition, the sweating caused by tight clothes and jewelry may contribute to the development of dermatitis.
- Water may also cause irritant contact dermatitis with prolonged exposure to the skin. This is more likely to occur with certain occupations, like dish washers.
- Skin contact with metal filings, fiberglass, fibers and dust (both inorganic and organic) can also lead to irritant contact dermatitis.
- Environmental conditions (such as dryness and extreme cold or hot weather) that affect the moisture of the skin can also cause dermatitis.
- Prolonged use of gloves is also associated with the development of irritant contact dermatitis. Both latex and rubber gloves can cause this condition. In addition, latex may cause allergic contact dermatitis.
Treatment of Irritant Contact Dermatitis
The treatment for irritant contact dermatitis involves identifying the irritant and preventing its contact with the skin. The signs and symptoms usually subside when contact with the irritant is stopped. The affected area of the skin can be washed thoroughly to remove any irritant that may be in contact with the skin.
Application of a moisturizer to the skin may also help by creating a barrier for potential irritants. Corticosteroid treatment may be prescribed in some cases to reduce the skin inflammation. In case of secondary skin infections, antibiotics or antifungal agents may be given.