Contact allergy

Certain chemical or plant-based substances can irritate any person’s skin and cause redness, burning or itching. However, the immune system in people with a contact allergy shows a hypersensitive reaction, which is often already provoked by very small amounts of certain substances that are generally not aggressive.

At a glance

  • With a contact allergy, small amounts of particular substances can often trigger an overreaction of the immune system.
  • Examples of common triggers include metals like nickel, fragrances or latex.
  • The symptoms initially appear on the area of the body that had contact with the trigger.
  • Around 8% of all adults have a contact allergy.
  • Contact allergies are rarer in men than women.

Note: The information in this article cannot and should not replace a medical consultation and must not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment.

Contact allergy: thumb pressing nozzle on contact spray bottle; spray released.

What is a contact allergy?

Various chemical or plant-based substances can irritate the skin and cause redness, burning or itching.

  • Examples of common triggers of a contact allergy include metals, fragrances or latex.
  • A contact allergy can cause severe skin reactions.
  • The symptoms are not immediately noticeable, but usually occur after 1 to 3 days.
  • A contact allergy develops over a lengthy period of time in which constant contact is made with the allergen.
  • Some people with contact allergies can only do their job to a limited extent.

What are the signs of a contact allergy?

A contact allergy causes eczemas. Typical symptoms are:

  • a reddish, often ill-defined skin rash
  • swelling
  • itching
  • dry skin

Severe allergic reactions may cause the skin to be painful and tauten. Blisters may also form. If these blisters burst, the skin weeps, forms scabs and eventually becomes flaky.

At first, only the body region that had contact with the trigger is affected, usually the hands and in particular the back of the hand and fingers.

The allergic reactions typically only become noticeable later – and then also on regions of the body apart from the point of contact. This is called disseminated eczema or id reaction.

What causes a contact allergy?

Common triggers of a contact allergy are:

  • metals such as nickel and cobalt
  • latex
  • adhesives, also in plasters
  • plants such as chamomile and arnica
  • fragrances in cosmetics such as lipstick, perfumes and soaps
  • detergents and solvents
  • essential oils
  • drugs that are applied to the skin
Causes of contact allergies: metals (such as nickel and cobalt), latex, adhesives (including on plasters), plants (such as chamomile and arnica), perfume (as in cosmetics), detergents and solvents, essential oils, medication (such as creams).

Right from the first contact, the body forms antigens (antibodies) against the trigger (allergen). This means that it has a more sensitive reaction to the particular substance.

Only after a while do noticeable symptoms develop as a result of repeated contact with the trigger. Barbers and hairdressers, for example, are affected as they come into regular contact with chemical hair dye products or perming liquids.

Anyone who is generally susceptible to allergies also develops a contact allergy more frequently.

What is an allergy?

The video below explains what can trigger an allergy and what symptoms can occur.

This and other videos can also be found on YouTube

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How common is a contact allergy?

Around 8% of adults have contact allergies. They account for around 10% of all occupational diseases.

Contact allergies account for around 10% of all occupational diseases. Those affected often work in the cosmetics, nursing, hairdressing and baking sectors, but also in offices, metal construction or bricklaying.

Around 8% of all adults have a contact allergy. They are rarer in men than women.

How does a contact allergy progress?

In most cases, contact allergies only develop in adulthood. The symptoms usually subside due to a treatment and avoidance of the trigger. But a chronic contact allergy can also develop. This causes swellings and cornification of the skin; painful cracks develop.

How is a contact allergy diagnosed?

An allergic reaction cannot be clearly determined by symptoms alone. But an allergic rash often visibly differs from a non-allergic one: an allergic reaction is assumed when there are ill-defined edges to the affected areas of skin and severe itching. Moreover, different body regions are most commonly affected here.

During the consultation, the physician in charge asks about regular contact with certain substances and with which substances symptoms occurred.

More detailed information, for instance on the various allergy tests, is available at

How is a contact allergy treated?

Cortisone creams, ointments or solutions are usually applied to relieve the symptoms.

Kontaktallergie behandeln: Cortisonhaltige Crermes, Salben und Lösungen, Handschuhe und Schutzkleidung, Kontakt zum Auslöser vermeiden.

The most important measure is avoiding contact with the triggering substance. With a nickel allergy for instance, no pieces of jewelry or belt buckles containing nickel should be worn.

Contact cannot always be avoided in professional life. In that case, gloves and protective clothing can help. If a contact allergy caused at work is suspected, the dermatologist or company medical officer should report this to the German Employers' Liability Insurance Association (“Berufsgenossenschaft”). For example, if the allergy is recognized as an occupational disease, the costs of protection measures are accepted. In some cases, moving to another job is inevitable.

What else should I know?

You can find more information about contact allergy symptoms at (in German).

In cooperation with the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (Institut für Qualität und Wirtschaftlichkeit im Gesundheitswesen) (IQWiG).

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