Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

Woman scratching her wrist.

Woman scratching her wrist.
beginning of content

Contact dermatitis

4-minute read

What is contact dermatitis?

Inflammation of the skin is commonly called 'eczema' or 'dermatitis'. Contact dermatitis occurs when your skin comes into contact with something that makes it red and inflamed.

There are 2 types of contact dermatitis:

  • Allergic contact dermatitis — this is caused by an allergen (a trigger). Each time you come into contact with the allergen, the skin gets inflamed.
  • Irritant contact dermatitis — also known as contact dermatitis, this is when your skin gets inflamed when it’s exposed to an irritant, usually for a long period of time.

What are the symptoms of contact dermatitis?

Both types of contact dermatitis can cause the skin to become:

  • cracked
  • red
  • blistered
  • thickened
  • dry
  • itchy
Image showing contact dermatitis.
Contact dermatitis can cause the skin to become red, inflamed, cracked, blistered, thickened or dry.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes contact dermatitis?

Common causes of allergic contact dermatitis are nickel, plants, chemicals, cosmetics, creams and ointments.

Irritant contact dermatitis can be caused by frequent handwashing, medications used on the skin, cosmetics, dyes, chemicals, rubber and glues and plants.

When should I see my doctor?

You should see a doctor if you have a rash that doesn’t clear up, or if it is uncomfortable. See your doctor sooner if the rash is widespread, comes on suddenly or is painful.

How is contact dermatitis diagnosed?

If you think you have contact dermatitis, your doctor may refer you to a dermatologist (skin specialist) or immunologist (allergy specialist).

It can be difficult to diagnose the cause of allergic contact dermatitis because the rash often appears days after you come into contact with the allergen. The specialist may do a skin prick test, blood test or patch testing (when patches are applied to your skin for several days) to see what you are allergic to.

There is no specific test to diagnose irritant contact dermatitis.

How is contact dermatitis treated?

Treatment involves working out what allergen or irritant is causing the contact dermatitis and then avoiding it. The rash should clear slowly once you avoid the trigger.

It is possible to have different types of contact dermatitis at the same time. You may need to avoid several different allergens or irritants.

Your doctor may recommend a moisturiser, steroid creams or tablets, or therapy such as ultraviolet light. In severe cases, immunosuppressant medication may be needed.

Try not to scratch the affected skin and keep your nails short so you don’t accidentally scratch yourself and break the skin. Your pharmacist or doctor may be able to recommend some products which can help with dry, sore or itchy skin.

Can contact dermatitis be prevented?

If you have allergic contact dermatitis, you will be allergic to the allergen for life. Preventing the rash depends on how easy it is to avoid the trigger.

The best way to avoid an outbreak is to:

  • Keep your home clear of the substance or substances that trigger the contact dermatitis.
  • Take steps to protect any exposed skin if the triggers are unavoidable. Try to wear protective clothing to minimise contact, for example using gloves when washing up or using cleaning products.
  • Use a barrier cream to protect your skin.
  • Wash your skin as soon as you come into contact with a trigger. Also wash clothing that may have come into contact with it.
  • If you come into contact with your irritants or allergens at work, tell your employer so they can help reduce any contact you have with them.
  • Prevent your skin from getting too dry. Daily moisturisers (emollient creams) may help. Apply these after your skin has been wet, such as after washing up, showering or swimming.
  • Avoid extreme changes in heat or cold and humidity.

Complications of contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis can become infected. See your doctor if you have a fever or there is pus inside the blisters on your skin.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2022

Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Contact Dermatitis -

Contact dermatitis can be easily treated with over the counter creams as well as topical and oral medications.

Read more on myDr website

ACD A-Z of Skin - Irritant Contact Dermatitis (ICD)

Dermatitis is a very common, itchy red skin rash with a variety of types and causes (some types are also called eczema). It is common for a person with dermatitis to have more than one type, either at the same time or at different times in their lives.

Read more on Australasian College of Dermatologists website

Dermatitis (eczema) | National Centre for Farmer Health

Dermatitis (also called eczema) is a skin condition which is common among farmers. This type of dermatitis can be referred to as occupational contact dermatitis due to development of rash via work. Read more...

Read more on National Centre for Farmer Health website

ACD A-Z of Skin - Dermatitis Herpetiformis

A-Z OF SKIN Dermatitis Herpetiformis BACK TO A-Z SEARCH What is it? Dermatitis herpetiformis is an uncommon itchy skin condition which can occur at any age

Read more on Australasian College of Dermatologists website

ACD A-Z of Skin - Seborrhoeic Dermatitis and Cradle Cap

A-Z OF SKIN Seborrhoeic Dermatitis and Cradle Cap BACK TO A-Z SEARCH What is it? Seborrhoeic dermatitis is inflammation of the skin that usually occurs on areas of the body such as the head and trunk where there are a greater number of oil glands

Read more on Australasian College of Dermatologists website

Dandruff and itching scalp - Better Health Channel

Itching scalp can be caused by a number of conditions, including dandruff, seborrhoeic dermatitis and psoriasis.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Coconut allergy - Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA)

Allergic reactions to eating coconut have been reported, but are relatively rare. By contrast, contact allergic dermatitis to coconut products is more common. Sensitisation to coconut pollen has been reported.

Read more on ASCIA – Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy website

Dermatitis / Eczema - ACD

What is it? Dermatitis is a general term to describe a group of common conditions presenting as itchy inflammation of the skin

Read more on Australasian College of Dermatologists website

Nappy rash -

Nappy rash can result from contact dermatitis, or from a fungal thrush infection. Find out how to manage this condition and when you should see your doctor.

Read more on myDr website

ACD A-Z of Skin - Perioral dermatitis

Perioral dermatitis is a common inflammatory rash that occurs around the mouth area. Other affected areas include around the nose, chin and eyes.

Read more on Australasian College of Dermatologists website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Queensland Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Victorian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.