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Contact dermatitis is inflammation of the skin caused by contact with a range of materials. These include detergents, toiletries, chemicals and even natural products like foods and water (if contact is prolonged or frequent). It can affect all parts of the body, but it is most common to see the hands affected. There are three main types of contact dermatitis:

Irritant contact dermatitis is caused by things that dry out and damage the skin, eg detergents, solvents, oils and prolonged or frequent contact with water. Allergic contact dermatitis occurs when someone becomes allergic to something that comes into contact with his or her skin. The allergic reaction can show up hours or days after contact. Common causes include chemicals in cement, hair products, epoxy resins and some foods.

Urticaria is a different kind of allergy. It occurs within minutes of the material touching the skin. Things like plants, foods and natural rubber latex gloves can cause it.

The signs and symptoms of the different types of dermatitis are similar. Dry, red and itchy skin is usually the first sign. Swelling, flaking, blistering, cracking and pain can follow.

Sometimes the consequences of contact with a material are immediately visible. Sometimes contact occurs without apparent effect. However, every contact can cause minute amounts of ‘invisible’ damage to the skin that can build up until more serious signs are seen. So, don’t be lulled into a false sense of security.

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