An allergic reaction on the face can be among the first outward signs of an overactive immune system. It may present as itchy, cracked, dry skin, swelling or tingling. You may have direct contact with a substance but not necessarily. Touching your face can transfer allergens, causing a skin reaction.
You can see why it can be difficult to identify the exact cause of your allergic reaction. This article looks at possible triggers and common skin conditions, where on your face is most likely to be affected and how to tackle your symptoms. This type of allergic reaction can be uncomfortable and distressing for babies, children and adults.
Virtually anything could cause an allergic reaction on the face. And it can happen unexpectedly for no obvious reason. You may have been in contact with the allergen for years without any problems. Common allergic conditions that can appear suddenly on your face, often as a rash, include allergic contact dermatitis, hives and oral allergy syndrome.
There are two types of contact dermatitis (eczema). Irritant contact dermatitis is non-allergic. Anyone could be affected by irritants like soap, certain chemicals, even water. Allergic contact dermatitis, on the other hand, starts in your immune system. It wrongly identifies as a threat and mobilizes T cells to cause inflammation and get rid of the substance from your body.
Have you just changed your hair color? Permanent hair dye can cause allergic contact dermatitis on your face and neck. Common allergens also include shampoo, fragrance in personal care products, baby wipes, nickel in jewelry, plants like poison ivy and topical medicines such as antibiotics. Allergens transferred from your fingers can cause contact dermatitis too.
Simple guide to skin allergies
Signs and symptoms of allergic contact dermatitis can include:
Some people only get contact dermatitis symptoms in the sunshine. The combination of ultraviolet light exposure and an allergen causes a rash on the face. It can happen with sunscreen or antibacterial soap and is called photoallergic contact dermatitis.
Hives is another type of allergic skin condition that can develop anywhere on your body, including your face. It may come with swelling or angioedema.
Contact urticaria tends to appear immediately and go more quickly than allergic contact dermatitis. The triggers likely to affect the face are similar: certain chemicals in personal care products and cosmetics, as well as nickel. But the food preservative benzoic acid and raw vegetables, fish and meat can cause it too. You’re at higher risk if you’re prone to allergies. Hives on your face can also be a sign of an allergic reaction to something that enters your body instead of touching it. Food allergies can cause hives and so can allergy to drugs and insect venom.
Signs and symptoms of hives can include:
A swollen face, mouth and throat, breathing difficulties and low blood pressure or slow heart rate could be signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis. This is a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction affecting your whole body and needs immediate medical attention.
The word oral is the clue to this cross-reaction, also known as pollen food syndrome (PFS) and pollen food allergy syndrome (PFAS). Some people with hay fever get a mild tingling sensation in their mouth, throat and face when they eat a particular food. It happens because the protein in a type of fresh fruit, vegetable or nut is similar to the protein in that pollen. OAS is more often seen among people who react to birch, grass and ragweed pollen.
We’ve already talked about one type of dermatitis or eczema which can affect the face and is caused by allergy. Here are two more:
Atopic dermatitis is the most common type of childhood eczema. There’s not one single trigger, although it can be linked to dust mite and pet allergies.
Instead, it’s thought to relate to an overactive immune system, a history of allergies in your family, environmental factors and emotional triggers such as stress. Eczema often affects the face and children can be left with sensitive skin for life.
Signs and symptoms of atopic eczema include:
Oral allergy syndrome
Seborrheic dermatitis is also known as seborrheic eczema. It’s one of the most common forms of facial eczema in adults. You’ll recognize the mild form that affects the scalp as dandruff. It’s related to sensitization to skin yeast and tends to affect oily skin. Babies often develop a version called cradle cap, which usually clears up by six months of age.
Signs and symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis include:
You can get a rash on any skin that has direct contact with your trigger. With allergens carried from hand to face some areas tend to be particularly vulnerable:
The skin on the eyelids is thinner than elsewhere, making it a common spot for allergic reactions. In older children, the lids can be affected by atopic eczema, especially if the child has hay fever.
Rubbing your eyes can transfer allergens. For instance, if you’re allergic to nail varnish you may get allergic contact dermatitis on your eyelids instead of or as well as on your hands. Your mouth and chin may be affected too.
Periorificial (or perioral) dermatitis is a relatively common rash that causes acne-like bumps around the mouth on contact with an allergen like toothpaste. It can also affect the eyes or nose. Periorificial dermatitis is more common in lighter-skinned, young to middle-aged women. It’s also seen in children.
The mouth is also a potential hot spot for food allergy symptoms like hives and angioedema. Also for oral allergy syndrome (OAS).
The cheeks are one of the first parts of the body to be affected by eczema. It usually happens within a few months of being born.
The creases of the ears and eyebrows are common spots for seborrheic eczema. The dry, scaly skin may look just like dandruff.
More about allergy medicine
Only your healthcare provider can confirm if you have an allergy. Bring any products you think might be causing your skin problems to the appointment.
Patch testing may be able to identify the offending substance. This involves taping small patches dabbed in suspected allergens to your back and checking for a reaction. It often takes two or more days for the results to be visible. Other diagnostic tools include skin prick tests and allergy blood tests. A skin biopsy can help determine the exact cause of eczema.
Try to improve your skin health and tackle flare-ups when you haven’t been able to avoid your allergen or factors that worsen the condition. Here are some skin care tips:
You could try symptom-relieving medication too. Speak to your healthcare provider about your options.
Antihistamine tablets and 1% (or less) topical corticosteroids are both available over-the-counter and may help very itchy skin. If your face doesn’t clear up you may need a prescription for oral steroids or a stronger topical corticosteroid. Anti-yeast ointment or cream can help manage seborrheic dermatitis, with or without a mild topical corticosteroid.
An allergic reaction on the face could be one of the first signs of allergy. It can be difficult to know exactly what’s causing the symptoms. Allergy testing may be able to identify the trigger. Sometimes it's due to food or drug allergies. The eyelids are a common sore spot but an allergic reaction can affect any part of the face. Avoiding your allergen should reduce flares, while antihistamines or corticosteroids can relieve symptoms. And don’t forget to moisturize regularly with an allergy-friendly emollient.
Last medically reviewed on 2/28/2023
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