Contact Dermatitis

Systemic Contact Dermatitis: Sometimes It Is the Food

Author and Disclosure Information

Systemic contact dermatitis (SCD) represents a unique pattern of allergic contact dermatitis that may cause a symmetric eruption involving intertriginous skin, genitals, eyelids, and/or hands. Common culprits known to elicit SCD for some patients include preservatives, metals, and fragrances. Certain medications including steroids and antihistamines can cause SCD. For patients who do not improve with skin allergen avoidance alone and who have a pattern of dermatitis suggestive of SCD, counseling on allergen avoidance through oral, parenteral, and inhaled routes is indicated.

Practice Points

  • Although most cases of allergic contact dermatitis are from direct skin contact, systemic contact dermatitis (SCD) can occur from ingesting certain allergens.
  • Systemic contact dermatitis tends to present as a symmetric pruritic eruption, which may involve the flexural or intertriginous surfaces, eyelids, hands, or genital skin.
  • Allergens known to cause SCD include certain plants, fragrances, metals, preservatives, and medications.



One of the perils of patch testing is fielding questions about which type of allergens will be used. Patients often ask if the patch test includes milk, foods, dander, mold, pets, and grass. Most patch testers spend a substantial amount of time explaining that the purpose of patch testing is to detect applied chemical allergens: It’s not what you eat; rather, it’s what touches your skin. However, the big caveat is that some oral, parenteral, inhaled, and even cutaneous allergens can produce systemic contact dermatitis (SCD), which represents a unique clinical scenario that we will review in this month’s Final Interpretation column.

There are many patterns of SCD. Familiarity with potential clinical presentations can aid in diagnosis and counseling. Systemic contact dermatitis tends to be symmetrical. Dyshidrotic hand dermatitis is a reported pattern for systemic metal allergy, most commonly nickel. Refractory eyelid or genital dermatitis can reflect a systemic exposure, particularly if the dermatitis is in areas not caused by direct skin contact with the allergen. Systemic drug-related intertriginous and flexural exanthema is, as the name describes, an eruption involving axillae, genital skin, and flexural sites. It usually is a type of drug reaction, but the culprit can be an ingested allergen. So-called baboon syndrome SCD can cause persistent genital and intertriginous dermatitis. Other clues to SCD include dermatitis flare at the patch test site and erythema multiforme. Some patients also describe systemic symptoms, including headache, fatigue, and malaise.

Rhus Dermatitis

Poison ivy is the most common cause of acute contact dermatitis but also can be a cause of SCD. From the family Anacardiaceae, this sneaky plant is common in many parts of the United States; most allergic patients are familiar with their allergy from prior exposure.

In 1982, 54 Little League baseball attendees developed diffuse vesicular dermatitis involving the flexures after ingesting packaged cashews contaminated with cashew shells.1 In the same family as poison ivy, the cashew nut tree (Anacardium occidentale) produces a cashew apple containing the cashew nut. The cashew shell is the site that contains the allergenic oils. Typically, cashews are processed to remove the shell and oil prior to consumption. Ingestion of raw cashews is more likely to lead to SCD than roasted cashews because the heat in the roasting process can break down any allergenic oil.2


Systemic exposures to nickel usually are dietary. Clinically, SCD from nickel most commonly presents as refractory dyshidrotic hand eczema or papular elbow dermatitis.3 Nickel is commonly found in vitamins and supplements as well as certain whole grains, vegetables, beans, coffee, chocolate, and tea.4 Sometimes, cookware also can be a source of nickel exposure, particularly with steel cookware, from which nickel can leach into food.

In general, a diet lower than 150 μg/d is needed to prevent flares.5 A point-based diet is available for nickel-allergic patients.5 Patients should ingest a restricted amount of nickel (15 points daily); those who are extremely allergic might need to limit nickel ingestion to less than 5 points daily. Because of the challenges associated with maintaining a low-nickel diet, chelation therapy has been recommended to prevent nickel absorption. Disulfiram3 and ascorbic acid5 have been recommended, but larger studies are lacking.

Cobalt and chromium are other metals that, when ingested, can lead to SCD; both can be found in multivitamins. Other sources of dietary chromium include vegetables, coffee, beans, certain meats, and seafood.4 For cobalt, the dietary exposures are similar with the addition of nuts, apricots, and whole-grain flour. A point-based cobalt avoidance diet has been published. This diet recommends less than 12 μg of cobalt daily; patients can ingest up to 12 cobalt points daily.6


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