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Patient education: Contact dermatitis (including latex dermatitis) (Beyond the Basics)

Patient education: Contact dermatitis (including latex dermatitis) (Beyond the Basics)
William Howe, MD
Section Editor:
Robert P Dellavalle, MD, PhD, MSPH
Deputy Editor:
Rosamaria Corona, MD, DSc
Literature review current through: Feb 2023. | This topic last updated: Dec 15, 2021.

DERMATITIS OVERVIEW — Dermatitis is defined as an inflammation of the skin resulting in redness, itching, and/or scale. Contact dermatitis refers to dermatitis that is caused by contact between the skin and a substance. The substance can be an allergen (a substance that provokes an allergic reaction) or an irritant (a substance that damages the skin). Irritants are responsible for approximately 80 percent of cases of contact dermatitis.

In most cases, self-care measures and drug therapy can control the symptoms and prevent complications of contact dermatitis.

Topic reviews about other skin conditions are also available. (See "Patient education: Eczema (atopic dermatitis) (Beyond the Basics)" and "Patient education: Psoriasis (Beyond the Basics)" and "Patient education: Poison ivy (Beyond the Basics)".)

IRRITANT CONTACT DERMATITIS — Irritant contact dermatitis occurs when the skin comes in direct contact with a substance that physically, mechanically, or chemically irritates the skin, causing the normal skin barrier to be disrupted.

Cause — The most common causes of irritant dermatitis are products used on a daily basis, including soap, cleansers, and rubbing alcohol. People with other skin conditions, such as atopic dermatitis (eczema) or dry skin, are at greatest risk, although anyone can develop irritant dermatitis.

Symptoms — Mild irritants cause redness, dryness, fissures (small cracks), and itching. Strong irritants may cause swelling, oozing, tenderness, or blisters (picture 1). The hands are commonly affected, often between the fingers. Irritant dermatitis can also affect the face, especially the thin skin of the eyelids.

Diagnosis — The diagnosis of irritant contact dermatitis is usually based upon a person's history and physical examination. In some cases, a patch test (applying a small amount of a substance to the skin) may be recommended to determine if the dermatitis is allergic or irritant-type. Patch testing should be done by a dermatologist or allergist who is trained in this procedure.

Treatment — The goal of treatment of irritant contact dermatitis is to restore the normal skin barrier and protect the skin from future injury. Reducing or avoiding altogether exposure to known irritants is essential. In some cases, simply reducing the use of soap and using an emollient cream or ointment completely alleviates symptoms. Wearing gloves when working with irritants may help as well.

In more severe cases, topical corticosteroids (steroids) may be recommended. Steroid creams and ointments are available in a variety of strengths (potencies); the least potent are available in the United States without a prescription (eg, hydrocortisone 1% cream). More potent formulations require a prescription.

Steroid treatments for contact dermatitis are most effective when applied and covered with a barrier, such as plastic wrap, a dressing (eg, Telfa), cotton gloves, or petroleum jelly.

ALLERGIC CONTACT DERMATITIS — Allergic contact dermatitis occurs when the skin comes in direct contact with an allergen. This activates the body's immune system, which triggers inflammation. Allergic contact dermatitis can occur after being exposed to a new product or after using a product for months or years. Weak allergens require exposure of weeks to months before they cause dermatitis. The patient can help find the cause of allergic contact dermatitis by providing a history of exposures. As an example, if the patient presents with sudden-onset allergic contact dermatitis with blisters, plant exposure history is most helpful. In contrast, with chronic allergic contact dermatitis with skin redness and thickening, exposure to everyday items, such as clothing, shoes, cosmetics, and metals, should be mentioned.

Common allergens — Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac contain an oil called urushiol, which is the most common cause of allergic contact dermatitis. Ginkgo fruit and the skin of mangos also contain urushiol and can cause allergic contact dermatitis. (See "Patient education: Poison ivy (Beyond the Basics)".)

Other common allergens include nickel in jewelry (picture 2 and picture 3), perfumes and cosmetics, components of rubber, nail polish, and chemicals in shoes (both leather and synthetic) (picture 4).

Allergic contact dermatitis can also be triggered by certain medications, including hydrocortisone cream, antibiotic creams (sample brand names: Neosporin, Bacitracin), benzocaine, and thimerosal. Laundry detergents are an uncommon cause of allergic contact dermatitis.

Symptoms — Symptoms include intense itching and a red raised rash. The rash may blister in severe cases. The rash is usually limited to areas that were in direct contact with the allergen, but a rash can appear in other areas of the body, if the allergen was transferred to those areas on a person's hands (picture 5). Washing the allergen away with soap and water can usually prevent this spread.

The rash typically appears within 12 to 48 hours of exposure to the allergen, although in some cases it may not appear for up to two weeks. Less commonly, the rash persists for months or years, which makes it difficult to identify the cause of the reaction.

Diagnosis — The diagnosis of allergic contact dermatitis is based upon a person's history and physical examination. If symptoms improve after the allergen is eliminated, this supports the diagnosis. Patch testing may be recommended in some cases and is usually performed by a dermatologist or allergist.

Treatment — Allergic contact dermatitis usually resolves within two to four weeks after the allergen is eliminated, although it can take more time in some cases. Several measures can minimize symptoms during this time and help to control symptoms in people who have chronic allergic contact dermatitis.

Whenever possible, identify and stop all exposure to the allergen.

Oatmeal baths or soothing lotions such as calamine lotion can provide relief in mild cases. For people with more bothersome symptoms, wet or damp dressings are recommended, especially when the affected area is oozing fluid and crusting. Such dressings are soothing and relieve itching, reduce redness, gently remove crusts, and prevent additional injury from scratching.

Topical corticosteroids (steroids) may be recommended for people with mild to moderate symptoms. Steroid creams and ointments are available in a variety of strengths (potencies); the least potent are available in the United States without a prescription (eg, hydrocortisone 1% cream). More potent formulations require a prescription.

In people with severe dermatitis, a short course of steroid pills (eg, prednisone) may be recommended to get symptoms under control.

The use of topical antihistamines (sample brand name: Benadryl) should be avoided because it can cause contact dermatitis.

LATEX DERMATITIS — Latex is a fluid produced by rubber trees that is processed into a variety of products, including gloves, balloons, and condoms. In some individuals, exposure to these products and others can cause a contact dermatitis that is either an irritant or allergic reaction. Less commonly, a person can develop a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction to latex.

Irritant dermatitis — Irritant dermatitis usually occurs on the hands of people who wear latex or other rubber gloves, but the problem is not the latex. These gloves—whether or not they contain latex—often contain chemical additives that irritate the skin. Also, the gloves trap moisture against the skin, making it softer and more vulnerable to irritants. The combination of these factors can lead to dermatitis.

The symptoms of irritant rubber or latex dermatitis include redness and itching on the skin. There may also be dryness and cracking.  

People with irritant dermatitis often believe they have a latex allergy and then discover that their dermatitis occurs even when they use latex-free gloves. For them, treatment involves avoiding products that contain the irritants and using an emollient cream or ointment.

Latex allergy — A true latex allergy causes a different response than that seen with irritant dermatitis. A latex allergy can cause hives (raised, red, itchy welts on the skin), nasal and eye irritation or congestion, asthma, and even a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis. Also, people who have a latex allergy often also have allergic responses to fruits or vegetables that contain proteins similar to those found in latex. These foods include banana, kiwi, avocado, chestnut, papaya, potato, and tomato. (See "Latex allergy: Epidemiology, clinical manifestations, and diagnosis".)

Diagnosis — To diagnose a latex allergy, healthcare providers learn as much as possible about a person’s responses when they have been exposed to latex and related allergens in the past. If the pattern suggests a latex allergy, they usually confirm the allergy using blood or skin tests. In the United States, the preferred way to diagnose a latex allergy is through a blood test. In other parts of the world, diagnosis can be done with skin tests using latex derivatives, but such testing products are not easily available in the United States. Diagnosis of a latex allergy is usually done by an allergist

Treatment — The primary treatment for latex allergy is to avoid all latex-containing products. Non-latex examination gloves are widely available, and use of glove liners may also be an effective approach. (See "Latex allergy: Management".)

Natural membrane (sometimes called sheep skin) condoms may be used in place of latex condoms, and are effective for preventing pregnancy. However, natural membrane condoms do not protect against sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, gonorrhea, and chlamydia. (See "Patient education: Barrier and pericoital methods of birth control (Beyond the Basics)".)

People with a serious latex allergy should wear a bracelet, necklace, or similar alert tag at all times. If a reaction occurs and the person is too ill to explain their condition, this will help responders provide the proper care as quickly as possible. This measure is especially important in children. The alert tag should include a list of known allergies, as well as the name and phone number of an emergency contact.

People with a latex allergy should inform their doctors, dentists, and other healthcare providers about their allergy. Some patients are advised to carry an anaphylaxis kit (containing epinephrine that can be injected under the skin) as a precautionary measure. (See "Patient education: Using an epinephrine autoinjector (Beyond the Basics)".)

WHERE TO GET MORE INFORMATION — Your healthcare provider is the best source of information for questions and concerns related to your medical problem.

This article will be updated as needed on our web site ( Related topics for patients, as well as selected articles written for healthcare professionals, are also available. Some of the most relevant are listed below.

Patient level information — UpToDate offers two types of patient education materials.

The Basics — The Basics patient education pieces answer the four or five key questions a patient might have about a given condition. These articles are best for patients who want a general overview and who prefer short, easy-to-read materials.

Patient education: Contact dermatitis (The Basics)
Patient education: Diaper rash (The Basics)
Patient education: Blisters (The Basics)
Patient education: Allergy skin testing (The Basics)

Beyond the Basics — Beyond the Basics patient education pieces are longer, more sophisticated, and more detailed. These articles are best for patients who want in-depth information and are comfortable with some medical jargon.

Patient education: Eczema (atopic dermatitis) (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Psoriasis (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Poison ivy (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Barrier and pericoital methods of birth control (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Using an epinephrine autoinjector (Beyond the Basics)

Professional level information — Professional level articles are designed to keep doctors and other health professionals up-to-date on the latest medical findings. These articles are thorough, long, and complex, and they contain multiple references to the research on which they are based. Professional level articles are best for people who are comfortable with a lot of medical terminology and who want to read the same materials their doctors are reading.

Approach to the patient with a scalp disorder
Contact dermatitis in children
Vulvar dermatitis
Overview of dermatitis (eczematous dermatoses)
Poison ivy (Toxicodendron) dermatitis
Latex allergy: Epidemiology, clinical manifestations, and diagnosis
Latex allergy: Management

The following organizations also provide reliable health information.

National Library of Medicine

     (, available in Spanish)

American Contact Dermatitis Society


American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology



ACKNOWLEDGMENT — The UpToDate editorial staff acknowledges William L Weston, MD, who contributed to earlier versions of this topic review.

This generalized information is a limited summary of diagnosis, treatment, and/or medication information. It is not meant to be comprehensive and should be used as a tool to help the user understand and/or assess potential diagnostic and treatment options. It does NOT include all information about conditions, treatments, medications, side effects, or risks that may apply to a specific patient. It is not intended to be medical advice or a substitute for the medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment of a health care provider based on the health care provider's examination and assessment of a patient's specific and unique circumstances. Patients must speak with a health care provider for complete information about their health, medical questions, and treatment options, including any risks or benefits regarding use of medications. This information does not endorse any treatments or medications as safe, effective, or approved for treating a specific patient. UpToDate, Inc. and its affiliates disclaim any warranty or liability relating to this information or the use thereof. The use of this information is governed by the Terms of Use, available at ©2023 UpToDate, Inc. and its affiliates and/or licensors. All rights reserved.
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