Medical adhesives are found in bandages, medical and surgical tapes, medication patches and other wound care products. An estimated 0.3 percent of people report a skin reaction to medical adhesives, according to an article published in the January-February 2015 issue of "Dermatitis: Contact, Atopic, Occupational, Drug." The overwhelming majority of these reactions, however, are not due to an allergy to medical adhesive. Rather, the reaction is due to nonallergic irritation caused by one or more chemicals in the adhesive. This condition, known as irritant contact dermatitis, appears virtually identical to an allergic skin reaction -- so the confusion is not surprising. A true allergy to medical adhesive is quite rare.
Allergic vs. Irritant Contact Dermatitis
Contact dermatitis describes inflammation of the upper layers of the skin due to physical contact with a specific substance. There are two types of contact dermatitis, allergic and irritant. Allergic contact dermatitis is the result of the irritating substance triggering an immune response within the body that expresses itself at the site of skin contact. In contrast, irritant contact dermatitis is caused by direct irritation of the skin at the site of contact and does not involve an allergic reaction. Roughly 80 percent of all contact dermatitis is the irritant type.
True Allergy to Medical Adhesive
It's very difficult for even a healthcare provider to determine whether contact dermatitis due to a medical adhesive or bandage is an allergic or irritant reaction. To determine how common or rare a true allergic reaction is, researchers conducted extensive allergy testing on people who reported having an allergic reaction to medical adhesives or bandages. As reported in the January-February 2008 issue of "Dermatitis: Contact, Atopic, Occupational, Drug," less than 4 percent of people who suspected they had an allergy to medical adhesives were found to have a true allergy. Thus, it's estimated that roughly 96 percent of people who suspect they have an allergy to medical adhesives do not have an allergy per se. Rather, their skin is irritated by chemicals in the adhesives.
The symptoms of allergic and irritant contact dermatitis have some similarities and differences -- although the conditions are virtually impossible to distinguish based on symptoms alone. People with an irritant reaction to medical adhesives typically report burning, stinging or soreness rather than itchiness at the site of contact. The reverse is true with allergic contact dermatitis, with which itchiness predominates rather than pain. In both cases, the skin at the site of contact typically turns pink to red. With allergic contact dermatitis, the redness may spread beyond the initial site of contact with the adhesive. The contact area can appear as a red rash resembling a minor burn or small bumps. In severe cases, blisters can form and break open causing a risk of infection.
The most important treatment for an allergic or irritant contact reaction to a medical adhesive is to remove the bandage or tape. Gently cleansing the area with mild soap and water is necessary to remove any residual adhesive. If possible, it's best to leave the area uncovered so it can heal. If a bandage is necessary, covering the area with sterile gauze and applying tape to the gauze rather than the skin prevents further irritation. For a true allergic reaction, over-the-counter antihistamines and corticosteroid creams may be recommended. If the skin is blistering or the redness is spreading, it's important to see a medical professional for treatment advice.
If you've experienced a skin reaction to a particular brand of bandage or medical adhesive, it's important to avoid it in the future. There are many types of medical adhesives, so one brand might irritate your skin while another will not. Paper and cloth tapes are less likely to irritate the skin than plastic tapes or bandages. Note that bandages which have medicine infused into the pad portion -- such as a topical antibiotic or anesthetic, like benzocaine -- can cause an allergic reaction to the medicine rather than the adhesive.
If you have a persistent problem with medical adhesives or bandages, see your doctor. This is particularly important if you have been prescribed a medication delivered with a skin patch. Your doctor will evaluate you for any underlying conditions that might be contributing to the skin reaction, and can order allergy testing, if needed.
Reviewed by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.