Skin Allergies

Some allergies cause symptoms in your skin. The most common are atopic dermatitis (a chronic condition that produces red, itchy patches) and urti-caria (which produces itchy, raised bumps). These reactions can be caused by many things, including something you've inhaled or eaten. A third type of skin allergy is contact dermatitis, which is triggered by direct contact with an allergenic substance.

Atopic Dermatitis

Dermatitis, also known as eczema, is a broad term encompassing many types of skin inflammation. The most common is atopic dermatitis, a chronic, itchy condition in which the skin is overly sensitive to certain triggers. Although it's technically not an allergy, atopic dermatitis primarily affects allergy-prone people and often accompanies other allergic conditions. More than 15 million Americans have it.

Atopic dermatitis most often affects children and babies (see Chapter 6). Although there's no known cause, there are several “triggers” that can cause flare-ups. These include:

  • Allergens, such as pollen or mold

  • Irritants, such as certain fabrics, soaps, chlorine, or cigarette smoke

  • Certain foods, especially eggs, peanuts, and milk

  • Other factors, like stress, high temperatures, and low humidity

  • According to the National Institutes of Health, roughly 2.5 percent of Americans under the age of sixty-five have atopic dermatitis. But this relatively rare condition costs between roughly $600 and $1,250 per patient, per year — representing more than a quarter of the average patient's health care costs. All that adds up to more than $1 billion annually.


    Urticaria is a fancy name for hives, a condition that affects about 20 percent of the population at one time or another. Most often, urticaria appears suddenly and disappears a few hours later. In some people, however, the hives stick around much longer, or go away only to reappear a short time later. The most common triggers for urticaria are certain medications, foods, and insect bites.

    Contact Dermatitis

    If your skin encounters an allergen, you might develop contact dermatitis, in which the affected skin turns red and itchy (as it would after touching poison ivy). Experts have identified more than 3,000 allergens that can cause allergic contact dermatitis. They include: OTC antibiotic creams and ointments, fragrances in many skin and hair care products (even products labeled “unscented” can contain fragrance), and metals such as the nickel in jewelry and the mercury in dental fillings.

    Occasionally, a substance won't cause an allergic response unless it's triggered by something else, such as sunlight (these reactions are called photoallergies). This can be the case with skin preparations and some medications. Other people will react to an allergen only after they begin to perspire.


    Conventional medicine generally treats allergic skin reactions with pharmaceuticals designed to stop the symptoms, if not the reaction itself.

    These include:

  • Topical antihistamines and corticosteroids, which control itching and swelling

  • Topical immunomodulating drugs to reduce the immune system's response

  • Oral or topical antibiotics to treat infection in inflamed skin

  • Oral or injectable corticosteroids

  • Oral immunomodulators

  • Each of these drugs has potential side effects. The last two, which are generally reserved for cases that haven't responded to the other drugs, can cause serious problems, including hypertension and kidney problems.

    Herbal medicine has some effective alternatives:

    Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)

    Astragalus is used in traditional Eastern medicine to treat all sorts of allergic diseases. In the lab, it's been shown to suppress atopic dermatitis.

    Hops (Humulus lupulus)

    Native Americans used this herb as a multipurpose skin remedy. New research shows that drinking a hop extract can inhibit all sorts of allergic reactions, including atopic dermatitis.

    Oats (Avena sativa)

    Used in baths and skin care treatments, oatmeal relieves itching and inflammation and creates a barrier to help skin heal.

    Saint John's wort (Hypericum perforatum)

    Saint John's wort is a traditional remedy for many skin problems. Used topically, it inhibits inflammation-building enzymes to relieve atopic dermatitis.

    Tea (Camellia sinensis)

    Tea contains phytochemicals that have been proven effective at suppressing all types of allergic response, including inflammatory skin diseases.

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