Skin allergies are common: An estimated nine percent of Americans suffer from some degree of allergic contact dermatitis. Skin allergy incidence appears to be on the rise. In the 1960s, only three percent of children were diagnosed with allergic contact dermatitis. By the late 1990s that number had risen to ten percent.
Allergic contact dermatitis occurs when the skin comes into direct contact with an allergen. Skin rashes, itching and other reactions can also be due to the ingestion of oral medications and certain foods, even though the allergen has not directly touched the skin. Between ten and twenty percent of Americans experience hives at some point in their lives. For most people, allergy-based dermatitis is mild and temporary. For some, a skin allergy can be both chronic and severe. Learning to identify allergy symptoms and allergic triggers is the best way to avoid allergic skin rashes and reactions.
Symptoms of allergic contact dermatitis vary. Skin rashes may appear as blotchy red patches or smaller red bumps. Urticaria, or an outbreak of hives, is also a common symptom. Skin rashes and other symptoms of allergies may appear as late as one to two days after exposure to the allergen, and can take as long as two to four weeks to clear up. Some people suffer from chronic hives that may persist for months.
Avoidance of allergens is the best way to prevent skin allergies. Avoidance requires that you carefully examine your surroundings for the allergen: People suffering from a metal allergy, for instance, should be aware that nickel is commonly used in jewelry and eyeglass frames. Allergens are often invisible, making avoidance more difficult.
Treatment varies, depending on the severity of symptoms. A cold compress can soothe itching and skin rashes. Hives are a sign of high histamine levels, so an antihistamine may provide relief. Antihistamine medications are available in both over-the-counter and prescription forms.
Hydrocortisone is a steroid medication available in topical and oral forms. Topical hydrocortisone helps reduce the itching and swelling when allergies are confined to a small area of the skin. Some topical solutions can even be purchased without a prescription. Extensive skin rashes and hives may require the use of prescription oral hydrocortisone. Large or extended doses of any steroid can cause unwanted side effects. Consult your doctor before using hydrocortisone.
Antihistamine and Hydrocortisone creams are both used for skin allergies.
Poison oak, poison ivy and poison sumac are perhaps the best-known causes of skin allergies caused by contact with plants. Allergic reactions to these plants are not always immediate: Skin rashes may break out up to two days after contact with poison ivy or poison oak.
Simply avoiding poison ivy and poison oak isn't always enough to prevent skin rashes. Touching an item that has been in contact with the plants is often enough to trigger a reaction. The allergen can be passed to human skin through a third party: Other people, clothing, gardening tools, or pets that have come into contact with the plants can "carry" the allergen.
Nickel allergies are the most common type of metal allergy, although gold, steel and other metals can also cause reactions. Nickel allergies appear to be on the rise: Fifteen percent of the US population suffers from nickel allergies, as opposed to only ten percent in the 1980s. A possible explanation for this increase is the popularity of body piercing, which brings more people into direct contact with nickel-containing jewelry.
Nickel is used extensively by the jewelry industry, although many companies offer nickel-free jewelry. The body does not actually react to the nickel itself; the allergic reaction is caused by nickel salts, which are formed when the metal comes into contact with skin.
The body's immune system rarely reacts to sunlight enough to warrant a diagnosis of a sun allergy. However, symptoms of sun sensitivity can mimic those of skin allergies. Solar urticaria, or sun-induced hives, is a fairly common reaction. Sun sensitivity can also be aggravated by certain medications. Sun block and sunscreen may help, but no sunblock completely shields skin from sunlight, so the skin may still react. A "sun allergy" reaction can be avoided by limiting sun exposure, wearing protective, long-sleeved clothing, sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats.
An annual "sun allergy" affects many people in the springtime, especially in areas where winter sunlight is limited. Called polymorphous light eruption (or PMLE), the condition occurs up to three days after initial sun exposure, causing skin rashes and hives. As springtime progresses, the body builds up a tolerance to sunlight, and the condition usually fades completely by summer. People who experience PMLE should use sunscreen or sun block until the skin adapts to the new season.
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