Skin Allergies: Getting to the Root Cause of Your Rash - VITAL+ Pharmacy

Suffer with red, burning, bumpy or itchy skin? Yes you have a rash, but do you know what’s causing it? Here’s how to tell if your rash is just an irritation or, if you’re suffering with a skin allergy. We round-up 3 of the most common skin allergies, the symptoms to look out for, and how to treat them.

Our skin can be a sensitive thing. It can burn, it can itch, it can swell, it can bruise. There’s not much it can’t do. It’s the largest organ of the human body, and one of the most complicated. Mainly because it has multiple roles when it comes to maintaining our health and keeping us alive.

Not only does the skin hold everything in, it also plays a crucial role in providing an airtight, watertight and flexible barrier to contain the highly regulated systems within the body. Our skin protects us from the elements, but it also helps to regulate body temperature, immune defence, vitamin production, and sensation. Our skin is essential to keeping our bodies functional and healthy.

But because of its numerous and complex functions, the skin is at risk of a number of potential problems and issues — from illness and infection to inflammation and allergic reactions. In fact, there are more than 3,000 skin disorders known to dermatology.

The skin’s formation is incredibly unique and demands a lot of attention and care. It can react to a number of things, like the sun, skincare products, medication, exposure to certain plants, the food that we eat — the list goes on and on. When your skin reacts to something it doesn’t like, it usually manifests itself as a red, inflamed and/or itchy rash.

Most of us have had the unpleasant experience of a rash on the skin – pink, red or purple, flat or bumpy, itchy, scaly, pus-filled, or just plain unsightly. But if you don’t know what’s causing it, how do you do you know how to treat it?

The likelihood is that your rash is a reaction to something your body doesn’t like. Skin allergies are the most common cause of skin rashes. This is when your body reacts to an allergen, and your immune system triggers an immune response, or allergic reaction — a rash.

The trick is to find out what’s causing the reaction, so you can take precautions to stop the reaction from happening again, or at least have the right medication to treat it.

So to help, we’ve rounded up the three of most common skin allergies and some healing remedies to stop your rash from spiralling out of control.

3 of the Most Common Skin Allergies and How to Treat Them


Hives (also known as 'urticaria' or 'nettle rash'), is a skin rash that can be triggered by a variety of factors including allergic reactions, medicines or an infection. Sometimes the trigger is unknown, but generally speaking, people who are known to have allergies are more likely to get hives

The rash — which usually consists of itchy, raised bumps (or welts), that are red, pink or flesh-coloured, and sometimes they sting or hurt —is caused when the body produces a substance called histamine, a protein used to fight off viruses and bacteria.

The raised areas of skin often fade after a few hours but can sometimes reappear on other areas of the body.

In most cases, hives are caused by an allergic reaction to a medication, or food, or a reaction to an irritant in the environment, such as pollen, animal dander, and insect bites or stings. When you have an allergic reaction, your body begins to release histamines into your blood as a means to defend itself against infection and other outside intruders.

For some people, however, the histamines can cause swelling, itching, and many of the symptoms that are experienced with hives.

In many cases, hives are an acute (temporary) problem that can be alleviated with allergy medications. Most rashes go away on their own, however, chronic (ongoing) cases, as well as hives accompanied by a severe allergic reaction, are larger medical concerns. Call 000 immediately if you develop a hive outbreak around your throat, your tongue, or you have trouble breathing.

How do you treat hives?

First of all, you need to establish if you in fact you do have hives. In most cases, your doctor will give you a physical exam to examine your skin — your skin will show signs of the welts that are associated with hives. Your doctor may also carry out blood tests or skin tests to determine what may have caused your hives — especially if they were the result of an allergic reaction.

The symptoms will usually disappear after a few days, so you may not necessarily need a prescription treatment, but if your symptoms get worse you can take over-the-counter antihistamines to alleviate any discomfort /swelling.

Other treatments that could help to alleviate your symptoms include:

  • avoiding irritating the area
  • avoiding sun, heat and hot water, these may aggravate the hives.
  • aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) should be avoided as they often make symptoms worse
  • use topical mediations or anti-itch creams such as calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream, although some people can be sensitive to these treatments — do not apply if the area is sore, infected, or features an open wound
  • apply cold and wet compresses, use ice on the affected areas, or take a cold bath

If you experience hives for more than six weeks, seek further medical advice for a more detailed examination. It could indicate you have an underlying health issue. In chronic hives, when antihistamines don't provide relief, oral steroids may be prescribed.

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Eczema is a common skin condition that affects both children and adults. It’s also known as atopic eczema, atopic dermatitis and allergic eczema.

It’s a disease of the immune system which affects the ability of the skin barrier to protect against outside irritants and allergens, making it easier for those irritants to penetrate into the skin. This throws the delicate balance of the skin microbiome out of whack, causing the immune system to go into overdrive. As a result, your skin can become red and inflamed.

Eczema patches appear mostly as areas of rough, dry skin that sometimes swells, cracks, and even oozes fluid. It can also cause redness, swelling and an intense itch. It can sometimes get so bad that you scratch enough to make your skin bleed.

It’s not exactly known what causes eczema, but we do know that it can sometimes be genetic, and often has an environmental trigger. Generally, it occurs because of a hypersensitivity reaction — the skin overreacts to certain triggers such as stress, dyes, fabrics, soaps, perfumes, animals, pollens, sweating, and certain foods.

Eczema usually appears on the inside of the arms, backs of knees, and in the folds of your skin.

To find out if you have eczema, your doctor will take a close look at your skin, to look for classic signs of eczema such as a redness and dryness. They will also ask about the symptoms you’re experiencing to make an accurate diagnosis. If there is any doubt, they may also perform an allergy skin test or a blood test, to eradicate any other underlying health issues.

How do you treat eczema?

Eczema is extremely common in infants — it affects 20% of children under two years of age, and usually starts in the first six months of life. The good news is many children outgrow the hypersensitivity by childhood or by early adulthood, showing marked improvements between the ages of two to five years.

For some people, eczema goes away over time. For others, however, it’s a lifelong condition. While there is no cure, it’s easily treatable. Doctors will suggest an individual treatment plan based on your age, symptoms, and current state of health.

Most eczema can be cleared with topical treatments, but the treatment depends on how severe it is. For mild to moderate cases, you should use a topical corticosteroid to control inflammation, and an emollient on your skin. This type of moisturiser has an oil or cream base, not a water base like lotion, which could dry out your skin even more.

Steroid creams can help treat a bad flare of atopic dermatitis, but shouldn’t be used constantly. In extremely severe cases, immunosuppressant drugs are prescribed.

If you have eczema, you should always use a non-soap based wash or oil in the bath or shower to combat dry skin, and avoid soap and bubbly products which can damage and dry out the skin.

Other tips include keeping the skin cool, avoiding hot water or irritants, and reducing allergens such as dust mites in the home, as well as avoiding any foods that could cause your flare-ups

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Contact Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis is a reaction, or rash, that appears on your skin when it comes into contact with an irritant or allergen, causing your skin to become red and inflamed. The rash could be caused by an allergy or because the protective layer of your skin is damaged.

There are two 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.

Symptoms of a contact allergy usually show up near where you touched the thing you're allergic to, whereas irritant contact dermatitis (skin damage) tends to burn and be more painful than itchy.

When something is irritating or damaging your skin, you'll most likely see a rash right away. With an allergy, it could be a day or two before the rash shows up.
Many of the symptoms can be the same, and can include a rash, swelling, blisters, itching and burning.

What’s the difference between allergic contact dermatitis and irritant contact dermatitis?

If it’s caused by an allergy, your immune system is reacting to something it doesn’t like. After you touch something, it mistakenly thinks your body is under attack, so it jumps into action by making antibodies to fight the invader. Your body then releases histamine, and this is what causes the allergic reaction — in this case, an itchy, rash.

Common allergens include jewellery metals (like nickel), cosmetic products, plants, medications, fragrances and preservatives. It can take several days after exposure for an itchy, red rash to develop.

Irritant contact dermatitis occurs more often than allergic contact dermatitis. You develop a rash when a chemical substance irritates the skin’s outer layers. The rash is more painful than itchy, and it tends to come on quickly in response to an irritating substance. Common irritants include detergents, soap, cleaners and acid.

What’s the treatment for contact dermatitis?

It can be difficult to diagnose the cause of allergic contact dermatitis, mainly because the rash often appears days after you come into contact with the allergen. If you think you have contact dermatitis, your doctor may refer you to a dermatologist (skin specialist) or immunologist (allergy specialist). They may carry out 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. Treatment for both types of contact dermatitis is the same. It usually involves working out what allergen or irritant is causing the contact dermatitis and then avoiding it. The rash should clear slowly (around two to four weeks) once you avoid the trigger. It’s possible that you might need to avoid several allergens or irritants at the same time.

Other effective treatments include anti-itch or steroid creams, oral steroids, or UV light therapy. In some severe cases, immunosuppressant drugs may be prescribed.

Here are a few additional tips to help alleviate your symptoms:

  • avoid scratching your skin, as this can make the irritation worse
  • use mild soap and lukewarm water to remove any irritants from your skin
  • stop using irritating products
  • moisturise your skin to help restore the protective layer
  • use a cold compress for blisters
  • take an oral antihistamine for itching
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