Health tipsSpring 2015

Is your skin irritated?
Don’t make any rash assumptions

Now that winter has finally released its grip on us, it’s tempting to think we’re done with dry, itchy skin for a while. But sometimes the cold weather isn’t to blame. Have you ever stopped to consider how many different substances come into contact with our skin every day, including shampoo and conditioner? They could be the culprits!

What often looks like a red, itchy rash is actually called “allergic contact dermatitis”, a type of eczema in which the body’s immune system reacts to a foreign substance on the skin. Common triggers include:

  • nickel, commonly found in jewellery and belt buckles
  • medications such as antibiotic creams and oral antihistamines
  • skin tattooing and black henna
  • fragrances in personal care products
  • latex rubber
  • plants such as poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac

Often we don’t make the link between a rash and products like perfume or latex gloves, especially if we’ve used those items before. However, it’s not usually the first contact that the skin reacts to. Rather, the first contact sensitizes the skin to a new allergen, while repetitive contact with a product triggers an immune reaction.

Generally, the reaction is limited to the area that has come into contact with the substance. But a reaction is also possible to something that enters the body as food or medicine, or during a dental procedure. This is known as “systemic contact dermatitis”.

Signs and symptoms include red rashes or bumps, itching, dry skin, blistering, and swelling, burning or tenderness. Dr. Robin Billick, JGH Chief of Dermatology, recommends identifying the allergen and avoiding contact, if possible.

If contact is made, he recommends washing the skin immediately with mild, fragrance-free soap and lukewarm water. Using a moisturizer can also help restore the skin’s outermost layer. If the rash is extremely uncomfortable or painful, or if it doesn’t go away within a few weeks, you should consult a doctor.

For more information on dermatitis and other types of eczema, consult the Skin section on the website of the Canadian Dermatology Association.

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