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Red Skin Rash: Causes and Treatment of Contact Dermatitis

  • Synopsis: Published: 2017-01-27 - A red skin rash can often be caused by an allergic reaction, skin irritation or contact dermatitis. For further information pertaining to this article contact: Advanced Dermatology P.C. at
Contact Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis is a type of inflammation of the skin resulting from exposure to allergens (allergic contact dermatitis) or irritants (irritant contact dermatitis). Phototoxic dermatitis occurs when the allergen or irritant is activated by sunlight. Contact dermatitis results in large, burning, and itchy rashes. These can take anywhere from several days to weeks to heal.

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Quote: "While most cases of contact dermatitis will resolve on their own, in some cases the rashes are too painful or uncomfortable and cause a person to lose sleep."

You practice an impeccable skin care regimen and then out of the blue you come down with a nasty red rash. Are you having an allergic reaction? Is your skin just irritated? Or is it something else?

According to dermatologist Sonoa Au, MD, with Advanced Dermatology P.C., contact dermatitis, which can be triggered by either allergens or skin irritants, is likely to blame. Contact dermatitis is the medical name for rashes caused by cosmetics, soaps, fragrances, jewelry or plants such as poison ivy or poison oak.

"The good news is that the red, itchy rash of contact dermatitis isn't contagious or life-threatening. But it can be uncomfortable and unsightly," Dr. Au says. "These kinds of rashes are common so it's valuable to know how to quickly and effectively treat them."

Tips on understanding the causes

Contact dermatitis may seem confounding because the rashes can be brought on by a lot of substances. Dr. Au clarifies that there are two main types of contact dermatitis; irritant dermatitis and allergen dermatitis. Irritant dermatitis is the most common type and can be caused by:

  • Soaps, fabric softeners and detergents
  • Hair dyes and shampoos
  • Rubber or latex gloves
  • Cement
  • Pesticides or weed killers
  • Solvents or chemicals

Allergic dermatitis does not typically cause a reaction the first time you're exposed to a substance. In these cases the reaction usually only happens after subsequent exposure. This form of contact dermatitis can be caused by:

  • Antibiotics rubbed on the skin surface, such as neomycin, bacitracin or polysporin.
  • Adhesives, including those used for fake eyelashes or toupees
  • Fragrances in perfumes, cosmetics, soaps and moisturizers
  • Rubber or latex gloves
  • Nickel or other metals that are found in jewelry, buttons, bra straps and zippers
  • Fabrics and clothing
  • Poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac and other plants

Additionally in some cases contact dermatitis symptoms only come on after the skin is also exposed to sunlight (photo contact dermatitis). This occurs with sunscreens, shaving lotions, coal tar products, some perfumes, and even from lime juice. Dr. Au adds that an allergy typically brings on symptoms on or near the skin you touched the allergen with, while a rash from skin irritants may be more widespread. Also with an allergy, it may be a day or two before the rash shows up. But with an irritant, the rash usually presents itself immediately, and it tends to be more painful than itchy."

Treating contact dermatitis

Successfully treating contact dermatitis begins with identifying what's causing the reaction. Avoiding the trigger usually gives the rash a chance to resolve on its own, though it may take two to four weeks. Home treatment measures, which can reduce inflammation and soothe skin, include:

  • Washing affected skin with water to remove any traces of remaining irritant.
  • Using anti-itch creams such as calamine lotion or corticosteroid skin creams or ointments.

If the rash persists, it's appropriate to call a dermatologist, who may, for patients with long-term, repeated contact dermatitis, do allergy testing with skin patches. "Patch testing" can identify which allergen is causing the reaction. There are hundreds of test to help discover the correct allergens. Dermatologists may also prescribe ointments, creams or even pills to treat more severe cases of contact dermatitis.

"While most cases of contact dermatitis will resolve on their own, in some cases the rashes are too painful or uncomfortable and cause a person to lose sleep. Given that there are treatments available to relieve the discomfort, there is no reason that a patient should suffer. Moreover, the failure to treat a severe case of contact dermatitis may potentially lead to skin infection and scarring," adds Dr. Au.

Sonoa Au, M.D., is board certified and specializes in dermatology at Advanced Dermatology P.C. Advanced Dermatology P.C. and the Center for Laser and Cosmetic Surgery (New York & New Jersey) is one of the leading dermatology centers in the nation with 18 locations in New York and New Jersey, offering highly experienced physicians in the fields of cosmetic and laser dermatology as well as plastic surgery and state-of-the-art medical technologies.

Related Information:

  1. Prickly Heat (Heat Rash) - Facts and Information - A heat rash is a form of skin irritation caused by excessive sweating during hot and humid weather - Disabled World
  2. Eczema: Contact Dermatitis & Skin Rash - Information on Eczema also called contact dermatitis a group of skin conditions that cause dry hot and itchy skin rash.
  3. Shingles or Herpes Zoster - A Painful Skin Disease - Shingles called herpes zoster a painful skin disease that causes chicken pox like affects with bands of blisters on one side of the body - Ian Langtree

Information from our Skin Diseases: Facts & Information section - (Full List).

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