Irritant contact dermatitis refers to skin inflammation and redness that occurs due to exposure to certain chemicals. Haircare products, detergents, solvents, soaps, and even water can cause reactions. Irritant contact dermatitis can be acute, meaning that redness and swelling begin immediately after one exposure, or it can be chronic, meaning that symptoms gradually appear after the skin comes into contact with the offending substance numerous times. Most cases of contact dermatitis do not require medical treatment; the skin tends to heal over a few days by simply avoiding the irritant. If severe irritation occurs, a dermatologist typically can prescribe topical anti-inflammatory creams to promote healing.
When the skin is exposed to an irritating substance, the immune system reacts by releasing chemicals to fight off the foreign particles. The immune system's response is what actually causes inflammation, rather than the irritant itself. Excessively dry or broken skin can increase the risk of developing irritant contact dermatitis.
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The hands are the most common site of irritant contact dermatitis. Individuals who are required to wash their hands frequently, such as hospital personnel and food service workers, are prone to skin dryness and eventual inflammation from hand soap. People who work around paint solvents, industrial chemicals, and fiberglass are at risk of developing the condition in both acute and chronic forms. In addition, many household cleaners, detergents, and facial acne scrubs can cause chronic contact dermatitis.
In acute cases, the skin begins to turn red within minutes of exposure. Itching and burning sensations are common, and the skin can feel painful to the touch. The affected area often resembles a burn that blisters, begins to ooze pus, and eventually becomes dry and scaly. Chronic contact dermatitis causes many of the same symptoms, though they tend to develop over the course of several days or weeks after frequent exposures.
Most instances of irritant contact dermatitis can be resolved by identifying and avoiding the foreign substance. The affected area should be carefully washed with cool water and a mild soap to prevent infection, and a bland moisturizing lotion should be applied to prevent drying out. Further care is usually unnecessary, and symptoms tend to disappear in less than one week. A bandage or loose wrap can be used to protect the damaged skin from friction caused by clothing or gloves.
A dermatologist typically should be consulted if the skin does not begin to heal or the irritation causes chronic pain. The dermatologist can conduct a physical examination to rule out other causes of inflammation, such as allergic reactions and psoriasis. He or she may prescribe anti-inflammatory topical creams or oral medications to reduce immediate symptoms and suggest ways to protect the area while it heals. The doctor can also help the patient decide how to avoid future instances of irritant contact dermatitis by wearing gloves or switching to less harmful cleaning products.