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6.0 Contact allergies (contact dermatitis) and Chemical Sensitivities


This article is from the Children Allergies and Asthma FAQ, by Eileen Kupstas Soo kupstas@cs.unc.edu with numerous contributions by others.

6.0 Contact allergies (contact dermatitis) and Chemical Sensitivities

The symptoms of contact allergies and chemical sensitivities vary
from person to person. A person can react upon exposure to a
particular substance, such as the metal nickel, wool, latex, rubber,
hair dyes (paraphenylene-diamine or PPDA), chromates (found in
cement, leather, matches, or paints) or household cleaners. A comman
example of contact dermatitis is poison ivy. Though these two terms
are not at all synonymous, the treatment is the same -- avoidance.

A person with a contact allergy will often notice redness, itching or
swelling when any part of the skin comes in contact with a substance
to which they are sensitive. The skin may form blisters that later
break. Clothing, blankets, carpeting and upholstry, or jewelry are
common culprits. Clothing can contain wool (a common allergen) or
chemicals used in processing the fibers, such as dyes, finishes or
sizers. Washing all clothing before wearing helps, but that may not
be sufficient to remove all the allergen. Obviously, this won't help
someone with an allergy to wool!

Jewelry often contains nickel as part of alloy or in electroplating.
Wearing no jewelry or only jewelry of 18 carat gold may help. Also
watch for buttons and other fasteners that may contain metal. Be
aware of keys, kitchen utensils, tools, door knobs, and other metal
objects. Look for clothing with non-metal fasteners, or coat the
parts that may touch the skin with clear nail polish or other
covering. Buy tools and utensils that have handles of wood, plastic,
stainless steel, or aluminum.

Many other possible allergens can be found in cosmetics, toiletries and
perfumes, household cleaners, and latex.

An allergist can perform a one of several tests to determine the exact
allergen. One test is a patch test -- a small amount of a suspected allergen
is placed on the skin for a period of time and then checked for a reaction.

See Contact Allergy and
Information on Common Skin Diseases
for more complete information.

Chemical sensitivities are not allergies, in the accepted definition
of an allergy as an antibody response by the immune system, but they
can have many of the same outward symptoms such as lightheadedness,
fatigue, headaches, and recurrent illnesses that have no other
explanation. Reactions vary widely from person to person, but the
treatment is the same: avoidance. Chemical sensitivities do not
require contact with the substance to cause a reaction. Fumes or
residues on surfaces may be enough to trigger a reaction. This type
of sensitivity can be hard to pin down, as it sometimes requires a
lot of observation to make the connection. Possible sources of
irritants can be anywhere -- carpets, laser printer toners, housing
insulation, household cleaners, etc. These sensitivities can be quite
serious, requiring complete avoidance of many common substances.

For more information on multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS)
The Human Ecology Action League (HEAL)
PO Box 29629
Atlanta, GA 30359-1126
(404) 248-1898

or The American Environmental Health Foundation
or The Environmental Hypersensitivity Association of Ontario

There is a mailing list
for people with chemical sensitivities called mcs-immune-neuro.


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