Symptoms of contact dermatitis 

In contact dermatitis, areas of skin directly exposed to a particular substance become red, inflamed (swollen), blistered, dry, thickened and cracked.

These symptoms can develop on any area of the body, but the hands and face are most often affected.

Symptoms caused by an irritant will usually appear within 48 hours, although strong irritants may cause your skin to react immediately, and milder irritants (such as soap and detergents) may need frequent and repeated exposure before they cause problems.

Symptoms caused by an allergen, such as make-up or metal jewellery, often take several days to develop.

Read about the causes of contact dermatitis for information about common irritants and allergens that cause the condition.

If you can avoid being re-exposed to the irritant or allergen responsible for the reaction, your skin will usually clear up within a few days or weeks.

For some people, however, symptoms may be severe and long-lasting, and may affect their quality of life. For example, contact dermatitis may affect your ability to do your job and can make you feel unhappy or depressed.

Additional symptoms

Depending on the substance that has caused the reaction, you may also experience some additional symptoms.

For example, allergens may cause affected areas of the skin to itch and irritants may cause a burning or stinging sensation.

Occasionally, areas of skin affected by contact dermatitis can become infected. Signs of an infection can include:

  • your existing symptoms getting rapidly worse
  • discharge from your skin
  • increasing pain
  • feeling generally unwell
  • having a high temperature (fever)

When to seek medical advice

You should see your GP if you have persistent, recurrent or severe symptoms of contact dermatitis. They can try to identify the cause and suggest appropriate treatments.

Seek immediate medical advice if you think your skin may have become infected, as you may need to take antibiotics.

Read more about diagnosing contact dermatitis.

Page last reviewed: 20/10/2014

Next review due: 20/10/2016