Itching and Scratching: Contact Dermatitis During Pregnancy

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 Skin changes and even itching and rashes are common in pregnancy. Many are not serious, but a doctor will help determine the exact cause and appropriate treatment of skin conditions.

Contact dermatitis is a red, itchy rash caused by direct contact with an allergen or irritating substance. It’s not contagious or life-threatening, but it can be very uncomfortable.

What causes it?

Many substances or objects can irritate your skin and cause dermatitis:

  • Soaps and shampoos
  • Cosmetics and personal care products
  • Fragrances
  • Jewelry
  • Plants
  • Foods
  • Fertilizers and pesticides
  • Sawdust
  • Pollens
  • Some medications

The rash will usually appear within minutes to hours of exposure and may last up to 2 to 4 weeks.

What are the symptoms?

Contact dermatitis is usually limited to the area of the skin that was directly exposed to the irritating substance. The symptoms vary from person-to-person and substance-to-substance, depending how sensitive you are to exposure. They will probably include:

  • A red rash
  • Itching (possibly severe)
  • Dry, cracked skin
  • Bumps, blisters, or hives
  • Swelling, burning sensation, or tenderness
  • Sensitivity to the sun

How is it treated?

If you are experiencing contact dermatitis, it can usually be treated at home with simple remedies. Petroleum jelly (Vaseline) can be applied to soothe and protect the skin. Creams containing low doses of steroids or calamine lotion can relieve the itching and inflammation. Cool, wet compresses can be applied to the affected area, and soaking in a cool bath may help.

If at-home treatments don’t help or the rash gets worse, see your doctor. Prescription-only steroid creams or ointments or oral steroids can be used to reduce inflammation.

Take care not to scratch the rash: if skin becomes broken or injured, you risk the possibility of skin infections.

Can it be prevented?

Of course, if you know that a certain item or chemical irritates your skin, try to avoid contact with it. Wear gloves and other protective clothing if there’s a chance you may be exposed to an irritating substance. Additionally, wash your skin frequently, especially if you know you were exposed to a rash-causing substance.

Take care of your skin by regularly applying moisturizers and consider a gel or cream barrier to protect your skin from possible exposure.

Use products labeled “unscented” or “hypoallergenic”: these contain fewer potentially irritating ingredients.

What if I am pregnant?

Contact dermatitis is not harmful or life-threatening to you or your baby. At its worst, it causes a lot of discomfort. In very rare circumstances, severe itching or blistering of the skin can lead to secondary infections, so take care to examine your skin regularly and tell your doctor if you notice any new rashes or skin changes.

Most remedies for treating severe or persistent contact dermatitis are not harmful to your baby, but ask your doctor or pharmacist before starting any new medications, even topical creams. 

Jennifer Gibson
Dr. Jennifer Gibson earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry from Clemson University and a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from the Medical College of Virginia School of Pharmacy at Virginia Commonwealth University. She trained as a hospital pharmacist and is the author of clinical textbooks, peer-reviewed journal articles, and continuing education programs for the medical community, as well as a contributor to award-winning healthcare blogs and websites. In her free time, she enjoys running, reading, traveling, and spending time with her family.

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