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Are you allergic to work? Contact dermatitis and the workplace

Is something at work giving you a rash? You're not allergic to work, but you may be allergic to a substance that's in your workplace. Both allergic and irritant contact dermatitis cause rashes with severe itching and can damage the top layers of your skin. You may also experience burning, pain and raised blisters or bumps.

Irritants with a potential to cause dermatitis that are common in workplaces include:

  • Solvents and detergents, such as acetone
  • Pesticides and fertilizers
  • Rubbing alcohol and bleach
  • Shampoo and hair processing products
  • Metals such as nickel
  • Epoxy resin or glue
  • Rubber-based products
  • Medications
  • Coolant or antifreeze
  • Grass

Industries that have a higher risk of contracting contact dermatitis include construction, automotive repair, healthcare and agriculture.

Steps to reduce your risk

It's not always possible to entirely avoid contact dermatitis, but there some proactive preventative steps you can take. Here are some ways you can reduce the risk of getting contact dermatitis:

  • Wear all employer-supplied protective gloves and clothing when working with potential irritants.
  • Wash skin exposed to irritants with a dye and fragrance-free soap, then moisturize with an unscented, high-quality lotion.
  • If the source of your dermatitis is a mystery, try to identify the source over time so you can avoid it.

What to do if you think you may have contact dermatitis

You may not be sure what is causing your reaction. If you contract contact dermatitis at work, seek medical attention to diagnose what's going on and receive treatment that can reduce your symptoms. Your doctor may refer you to an allergist for testing.

If you find out that your reaction is work-related, you should report it just as you would any other work accident. In many cases, you may be eligible for workers' compensation.

Depending on the severity of dermatitis, it may take several weeks for your skin to heal. Everyone is different; a substance that makes you break out may not affect others in your workplace. After healing, you may have to avoid the material altogether. 

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