Allergies: Triggers and Treatments

What are skin allergies?
Our skin constantly comes into contact with various substances in our environment. Allergens are those substances identified as foreign invaders by our immune system. Over time some people’s immune system becomes sensitized to allergens such that upon skin exposure to these allergens the immune system mounts an attack called allergic contact dermatitis. Dermatologists differentiate allergic contact dermatitis from irritant contact dermatitis, which is similar rash in response to irritating chemicals such as harsh industrial cleansers. While most of us will have a skin reaction to irritants in the environment, only some individuals develop reactions to allergens.

Who gets allergic contact dermatitis?
Those of us with sensitive skin, history of eczema, poor circulation in legs, jock itch or frequent swimmer’s ear are more likely to develop allergic contact dermatitis. However, anyone can become sensitized to allergens and thus a good history of exposure to potential allergens is important in making the diagnosis.

Skin Allergy TestingWhat do skin allergies look like?
Generally speaking allergic contact dermatitis appears as an itchy, red skin rash at site of exposure to the allergen. When the substance is airborne and settles on the skin it generally causes rashes on eyelids, face and neck. Examples of airborne allergens include pollen and sprayed substances such as fragrances. Another manifestation of skin allergy is hives, which are itchy welt like plaques on the skin.

What are common causes of skin allergies?
There are numerous allergens with long, complex names to list here! However, some of the most common everyday exposures that may cause allergic reactions include plants such poison oak and poison ivy; nickel, a metal that is used in jewelry, clothing, cosmetic products, soaps and shampoos among others; latex which is used in plastic gloves, condoms, elastic materials in clothing, among others; fragrances used in colognes, perfumes, deoderants, etc; household cleaning products; hair dyes; dental fillings; topical medications such as antibiotic ointments.

How are skin allergies diagnosed?
If allergic contact dermatitis is suspected your dermatologist will obtain a detailed history of exposures. He or she may also performed a specialized skin allergy test called a patch test, which helps determine if you have an allergy to specific allergens.

What is Patch Testing?
Patch Testing is a reliable, easy way to diagnose allergic contact dermatitis. It is designed to help your doctor find out whether you are allergic to the substances included on the test panels (shown in the table below). The test panels contain 35 different substances known to cause allergic contact dermatitis.

How are skin allergies treated?
After your dermatologist establishes a diagnosis of allergic contact dermatitis to a certain allergen he or she may prescribe either a topical or oral steroid regimen to help resolve the rash. Furthermore, oral antihistamines such as Benadryl and topical anti-itch lotions such as calamine are often used to control the itching. Other home remedies to help cool the inflamed skin includes oatmeal baths, and cool compresses. Most cases of allergic contact dermatitis resolve in a few days or weeks. Ultimately, best practice is avoidance of exposure to the allergic culprit and your dermatologist will help guide you in that process.

If you suspect that you have a skin allergy we advise consultation with a board-certified dermatologist to help with diagnosing and creating a plan suited to your specific allergy.

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