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Contact Dermatitis in Children

What is contact dermatitis in children?

Contact dermatitis is a skin reaction from contact with certain substances. The substances may be:

  • Irritants. These cause direct skin irritation and inflammation. They are the most common cause of contact dermatitis. 

  • Allergens. These cause the body's immune system to have an allergic reaction. The body releases defense chemicals that cause skin symptoms. Allergens are a less common cause of contact dermatitis.                      

What causes contact dermatitis in a child?

Common irritants that can cause contact dermatitis in children include:

  • Soaps and detergents

  • Spit (saliva)

  • Urine in a diaper

  • Lotions and perfumes

Common allergens that can cause contact dermatitis in children include:

  • Poison ivy, oak, and sumac. These are plants with oil that causes skin allergies.

  • Metals. These include nickel, chrome, and mercury. Nickel is found in costume jewelry, belt buckles, and wristwatches, as well as zippers, snaps, and hooks on clothing. Chrome-plated items may also contain nickel. Mercury is found in contact lens solutions. It may cause problems for some children.

  • Latex. Latex is found in products, such as rubber toys, balloons, balls, rubber gloves, bandages, and pacifiers or nipples.

  • Cosmetics. Products include dyes used in hair color, clothing, perfumes, eye shadow, nail polish, lipstick, and some sunscreens.

  • Medicines. Neomycin may also cause contact dermatitis. It’s found in some kinds of antibiotic cream and local anesthetic.

Which children are at risk for contact dermatitis?

Contact dermatitis can occur in any child. If your child has atopic dermatitis (eczema), they are at increased risk for contact dermatitis.

What are the symptoms of contact dermatitis in a child?

Symptoms can be a bit different for each child. The skin may be:

  • Itchy

  • Painful

  • Red

  • Swollen

  • Dry, cracked, peeling

  • Bleeding

  • Oozing, draining, crusting

  • Blistering

Symptoms are often worse where the substance came in contact with the skin. Larger areas may also be affected. Many of these symptoms may be caused by other skin conditions. Have your child see their healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is contact dermatitis diagnosed in a child?

The healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and health history. They will give your child a skin exam. The provider will also ask about recent contact with any irritants or allergens. Your child may also have tests, such as skin tests or blood tests. Your child may need to see an allergist or dermatologist. An allergist is a healthcare provider with special training to treat allergies. A dermatologist is a healthcare provider with special training to treat skin problems.

How is contact dermatitis treated in a child?

Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.

Treatment may include:

  • Identifying and stopping exposure to the irritant or allergen.

  • Washing your child’s skin with soap and water as soon as possible after contact. Wash all areas, including the face, neck, hands, and in between the fingers.

  • Using wet, cold cloths (compresses) on the skin. This is to help reduce symptoms and ease inflammation.

  • Using wet dressings for oozing areas. They may help decrease itching and improve healing. Ask your child's healthcare provider or nurse for instructions. 

  • Putting corticosteroid cream or ointment on the skin. This may help to lessen itching and other symptoms. The cream or ointment may be over the counter or prescription.

  • Giving your child antihistamine pills or liquid. This may also help to ease itching. Talk with your child's healthcare provider about what medicine your child should take.    

If your child has contact dermatitis from poison ivy, oak, or sumac:

  • Wash all clothing and all objects that touched the plant oil.

  • Be aware that pets allowed outdoors may have the plant oil on their fur. Your child can get allergic dermatitis from the oil on your pet. Wash your pet’s fur, if possible.

For more severe reactions, contact your child's healthcare provider. They may prescribe corticosteroid pills or liquid, or other medicines.

How can I help prevent contact dermatitis in my child?

You can help prevent contact dermatitis in your child by making sure they stay away from any substances that caused the problem in the past.

When should I call my child's healthcare provider?

Call the healthcare provider if your child has:

  • Symptoms that affect a large area

  • Symptoms around the eyes or genitals

  • Symptoms that get worse

  • Signs of a skin infection, such as increased redness, warmth, swelling, or fluid

  • New symptoms

Call 911

Call 911 if your child has contact dermatitis with trouble breathing.

Key points about contact dermatitis in children

  • Contact dermatitis is a skin reaction from contact with certain substances.

  • It can be caused by irritants or allergens.

  • It causes many symptoms, including skin redness, blistering, and itching.

  • It’s important to not have any contact with irritants or allergens that have caused dermatitis.

  • Treatment may include cool cloths, dressings, skin creams or lotions, or prescription medicines.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.

Online Medical Reviewer: Michael Lehrer MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Rita Sather RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Stacey Wojcik MBA BSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 4/1/2023
© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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