The skin is the body’s largest organ. It serves a vital purpose in protecting the body from the impurities that exist in the world around us. The skin is filled with special cells that protect the body from viruses bacteria and other threats. When these immune system cells come into contact with substances that they deem a threat, the skin reacts to the substance in a way that we refer to as a rash, blisters, or hives. It is the skin’s way of telling the body that this substance is no good for us. Medical professionals refer to the skin’s reaction as allergic contact dermatitis.
Non-allergic contact dermatitis is a reaction of the skin to something it comes into contact with but is not the result of an allergy to the material or substance, for instance when something too tight is worn around the wrist for a long time, causing the skin there to become red and irritated. This is different from allergic contact dermatitis. Allergic contact dermatitis is due to an allergy to a material or substance that a person comes into contact with. Allergic dermatitis doesn’t require prolonged exposure in order for skin irritation to develop. Allergic dermatitis, or an allergic reaction on the skin, can occur after very brief contact with the allergen.
Allergic contact dermatitis is not life-threatening, nor is it contagious. However, it can be extremely uncomfortable and even painful. The rash caused by allergic contact dermatitis can take weeks to completely heal and can not begin healing until the cause of the rash has been identified and is completely avoided.
What Causes Allergic Contact Dermatitis?
Many substances can cause an allergic reaction on the skin and what affects some people won’t affect others. However, some common allergens cause reactions in many people. Certain plants, such as poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, wood nettle, stinging nettle, baby’s breath, and leadwort can cause a severe allergic reaction, rash, and even blisters on the skin. These reactions can take weeks to heal. Other substances that are common in jewelry, clothing, and fabric care products are also common skin allergens and can cause allergic contact dermatitis.
Some common causes of allergic contact dermatitis are:
- Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac – These plants are common across the United States, growing in nearly every state in the union. Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac all produce a substance called “urushiol” which causes an allergic reaction in most people.
- Nettles – Wood nettles and stinging nettles are common in the woods and along hiking trails in the US. These plants have long, delicate hairs that sting when they come into contact with a person’s skin. The sting from wood nettles is less severe and subsides within an hour or two. Stinging nettles, however, can cause rash, hives, and itching that can last up to 24 hours.
- Ragweed – While ragweed is best known for causing seasonal allergies often called hay fever, it can also cause a red, itchy rash if a person comes into direct contact with the plant pollen.
- Giant Hogweed – This invasive plant has been classified as a noxious weed in the US and can cause serious skin reactions including blistering, scarring, and even blindness if the sap comes into contact with the eyes. The skin rash can look like a second-degree burn. If you believe you’ve been exposed to giant hogweed, avoid sunlight on the area for up to 48 hours, as the chemical in the sap requires ultraviolet light to activate. Washing thoroughly with soap and cold water may help reduce the reaction.
- Soaps – Some soaps contain fragrances or chemicals that can cause an allergic reaction. Even if you’ve used a particular soap before with no problem, an allergy can develop at any time.
- Laundry Detergents – Fragrances and chemicals used in many laundry detergents can cause an allergic reaction in some people. Lavender, a common fragrance additive, can cause skin allergies in some people.
- Fabric Softeners – Fragrances used in fabric softeners are often the culprit for causing allergic contact dermatitis.
- Shampoos – Shampoos contain a chemical called methylisothiazolinone, also referred to as MI. MI is used to prevent the growth of bacteria in shampoo but has been identified as a cause of contact allergic dermatitis reactions in some people.
- Household Cleaners – Many household cleaners contain chemicals that can cause an allergic reaction. Even if you have used a cleaner before and had no reaction, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be the cause. Skin allergies can crop up at any time.
- Cosmetics – Fragrances and preservatives used in producing cosmetics can cause an allergic reaction in some people. The most common, allergy-causing ingredients in makeup are parabens, imidazolidinyl urea, Quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, phenoxyethanol, methylchloroisothiazolinone, and formaldehyde.
- Bath Soaps – Bath soaps and bath bombs often contain fragrances and dyes that are common causes of allergic skin reactions.
- Nickel – An allergy to nickel is a common cause of allergic contact dermatitis. Nickel is a common component of metal alloys that are often used in making everyday items. Nickel in costume jewelry is a common source of allergic reactions to nickel.
- Adhesives – Glue, including fingernail glue, can contain methacrylate, a chemical known to cause allergic reactions in some people.
- Nail Polish – Nail polish often contains formaldehyde which can cause severe allergic reactions in some people.
- Topical Medications – Medications that help some people cause allergic reactions in others. If you use a topical medication that causes an allergic reaction, discontinue use and seek the advice of your physician.
- Latex – Latex is a common component of many medical devices and dental supplies. Latex is made from the sap of the rubber tree and can cause allergic reactions in some people. Latex allergies can develop after years of safe contact with latex. Not having an allergy to latex in the past doesn’t rule out developing one in the future. If you have an allergy to latex, make sure you mention it every time you visit a medical or dental facility.
Determining the Cause of Allergic Contact Dermatitis
It can sometimes be difficult to determine the cause of your allergic contact dermatitis. A careful review of your recent past activities can shed some light on what new materials you may have come into contact with. However, because an allergy can develop after many non-reactive exposures to a substance, it can sometimes take time to figure out just what is causing the reactions.
First, consider any new products you may have recently introduced into your home or routine. A new laundry detergent or dish soap may be to blame. If you can’t identify something new in your life, the process may become more difficult. You can try eliminating likely allergens, or simply request the assistance of an allergy professional.
Skin testing in an allergists office will often help you identify the substances to which your body is sensitive, though it can’t always pinpoint the exact cause of a specific reaction on a specific day. Once you and your doctor have identified things you should avoid, you can get to work clearing those items out of your life, as much as possible. For allergens that you can’t completely avoid, being aware of the sensitivity and having a plan of action in case of contact can help you feel confident in maintaining a normal routine.
Allergic Contact Dermatitis of the Foot and Ankle
The most common causes of allergic contact dermatitis in the foot and ankle area are poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. These plants are common across the United States, growing in nearly every state in the union. Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac all produce a substance called “urushiol” which causes an allergic reaction in most people. The Chinese lacquer tree and certain parts of the mango tree also produce this substance. For people allergic to it, the urushiol in poison ivy, oak, and sumac will cause blisters and itching skin that may last up to six weeks. The rash is not contagious, and there is no “cure,” though anti-itch creams may provide some relief.
Another cause of allergic contact dermatitis in the feet and ankles can be the laundry detergent or fabric softeners used in the laundry that can cause a reaction. Shoes protect feet, but also don’t allow the foot to “breathe,” keeping the socks closed up all day and allowing the perfect opportunity for allergens used in doing laundry to stay in close contact with the foot all day. Chemicals and products used in manufacturing new socks may also be to blame for skin reactions on the feet and ankles.
If you are experiencing problems with the skin on your feet and ankles, Dr. Kleis can help you identify the source of the problem and prescribe a course of treatment. In addition to examining you for an allergic skin reaction, Dr. Kleis will also ensure that a fungal infection isn’t to blame for the symptoms you’re experiencing. Fungal infections can also cause itchy, dry, cracked skin that can look similar to allergic contact dermatitis. If your symptoms are due to a fungal infection, Dr. Kleis has a variety of treatments at his disposal that are effective in treating fungal conditions.
For an evaluation of skin conditions affecting the feet or ankles, schedule a consultation with Dr. Kleis today by calling (714) 760-4944.