Topical allergies

Contact dermatitis, or skin irritation and rash that happens because of contact with a substance, can be caused by a few different things, including infection, irritation, and an immune system response. If contact with a substance causes an immune system response, it’s contact dermatitis caused by an allergy.

Causes and symptoms of contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis that’s a topical allergic reaction is characterized by redness, itching, blistering, and in chronic conditions, as it goes on, flaking or scaly skin. Like all allergies, contact dermatitis happens when the body responds to a substance that most people’s bodies don’t have trouble processing, as if it’s an attack.

This immune system response can be caused by many different substances, but a few common allergens that children may come into contact with include:

  • Metals like nickel, chrome, and mercury, which can show up in costume jewelry, belt buckles, watches, zippers, and things that are chrome plated
  • Latex, which young children may come across in rubber toys like balls or balloons, or rubber gloves, pacifiers, or bottle nipples
  • Plants like poison oak, poison ivy, and sumac
  • Ingredients in cosmetics, bathing products, and some sunscreens
  • Medications, including ingredients in antibiotic cream and local anesthetics

Atopic dermatitis

Children and adults with personal histories of allergies or eczema are also at a higher risk for developing rashes not caused by allergies or contact with substances, called atopic dermatitis. These rashes usually start in infancy and often show up in places where the skin overlaps, like the insides of the elbows or the backs of the knees, and in the front of the neck.

Atopic dermatitis rashes can go through phases of flare-ups followed by times when it dies down.

What to do about dermatitis

While rashes in young children are fairly common, it’s still a good idea to have your child’s pediatrician check out rashes that cover large areas of skin, rashes that spread or gain new symptoms as time goes on, and rashes that don’t go away after a few days. Rashes that show symptoms of infection, like redness, warmth, swelling, or fluid should definitely be looked at by a pediatrician.

If your child has trouble breathing along with a rash, it’s time to call 911 or your local emergency services number.

If your child’s pediatrician thinks they might have contact dermatitis caused by a topical allergy, he or she might try to diagnose it using a patch test. Patch tests work best after a dermatitis attack has cleared up, and can be used to test for allergies to contact with specific substances.

Figuring out the specific substance that might be causing your child’s contact dermatitis is important, because avoiding contact with the allergenic substance is the best and most effective treatment for a topical allergy. Other treatments that might be suggested include:

  • Washing your child’s skin all over after contact with the substance, so that it can’t spread. This includes all areas, including their face and neck, and especially their hands, right down to the spaces between their fingers, so that they can’t accidentally reintroduce the rash to somewhere that’s already been cleaned off.
  • Putting wet, cool cloths on the affected areas, which can soothe itching and also put a barrier between itchy skin and scratchy little fingernails.
  • Over the counter or prescription medications like antihistamines or corticosteroid cream can help to relieve symptoms, though it’s important to check in with a pediatrician about dosing and which medication to use first. In some cases, other creams that affect the immune system may be prescribed as well.


  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Dermatitis.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic, June 17 2016. Web.
  • “Contact Dermatitis in Children.” Hopkins Medicine. Johns Hopkins University. Web.
  • “Contact Dermatitis in Children.” Stanford Children’s. Stanford Children’s Health, 2016. Web.
  • “Skin Allergy Overview.” American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, 2016. Web.
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