Five ways to manage skin allergies

profile picture of Amber Akhter
General Practitioner and Lead Physician, Bupa Health Clinics
19 June 2024
Next review due June 2027

If you have skin allergies, your skin may become itchy and inflamed after being exposed to something you’re allergic to. These types of allergies are common, but you may wonder how to manage them. Here we’ll discuss what causes skin allergies, their common symptoms, and suggest ways you can treat them.

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Types of skin allergies

Eczema (atopic dermatitis)

Eczema is an inflammatory skin condition that makes your skin dry and itchy. The reaction can happen after you’re exposed to something you’re allergic to (an allergen). It can also be made worse by using products that could irritate your skin, such as some soaps or shampoos.

Eczema usually starts before the age of five. It often goes away and comes back in cycles over many years.

Urticaria (hives)

Hives cause your skin to become red, itchy, and swollen. The rash usually forms circular, raised shapes across the skin (pruritic lesions). In some cases, urticaria can lead to a skin condition called angio-oedema, where the deeper layers of the skin become swollen.

Allergic contact dermatitis

Allergic contact dermatitis happens when your immune system responds to an allergen directly touching the skin. The immune response can cause your skin to burn, itch, become red or blister.

There may be a delay between when your skin is exposed to the allergen and when your symptoms begin. The inflammation can also spread to other areas of the skin, even if they did not touch the allergen.

The symptoms of different skin allergies can be similar, so you might not know which type you have, or what’s causing it. If you’re getting any of the symptoms mentioned and these are affecting your life, seek medical advice.

Causes of skin allergies

Skin allergies are thought to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. If your parents have had skin allergies, you may be more likely to get them too.

There are many things in the environment that could trigger some people’s skin to react. These include:

  • soaps, shampoos or washing detergents
  • certain foods, such as nuts, eggs, or cow’s milk
  • dust
  • insect bites
  • animal hair, such as dogs or cats
  • some drugs, such as certain antibiotics 
  • exposure to heat

It can take time to work out what’s triggered your skin allergy, but it’s useful to know the cause to help manage it correctly.

Five ways to manage skin allergies

1. Avoid the trigger

If you’ve identified what triggers your skin allergy, you should avoid all contact with the trigger if possible. This might involve changing your diet or medication or removing things from your daily environment.

If you’re struggling to work out what you’re allergic to, try to consider which potential allergens you encountered before your reaction. This could be a new shampoo or a type of animal fur. Your GP might also refer you to an allergy specialist for allergy testing. This can help find out what allergens your skin reacts to.

2. Emollient creams or ointments

Emollient ointments are medical moisturisers that you can apply directly to your skin. These are often prescribed to treat eczema, to soothe and hydrate dry, flaky skin. They can help to repair your skin barrier and prevent allergens and bacteria from irritating the skin.

Ask your GP which emollients they recommend for your skin condition. Medical emollients are different than cosmetic moisturisers as they don’t contain perfumes or harmful products.

3. Topical corticosteroids or calcineurin inhibitors

If you’ve tried emollient creams and your skin hasn’t improved, then you may be prescribed topical corticosteroid cream, or calcineurin inhibitors. These creams help reduce inflammation. You should apply these directly to the affected areas of your skin, as often as your doctor advises you.

If you have urticaria then topical steroid creams won’t help. You may instead be given corticosteroid medicine to take orally (by mouth), but this is usually a final line of treatment and other treatments should be tried first.

In some rare cases, using topical steroid creams for a long time can have side-effects, especially when you stop the treatment. This is known as topical steroid withdrawal, which causes the skin to become red and sore. Topical steroids are safe when used correctly and as a short-term treatment.

4. Antihistamines

Antihistamine tablets are commonly given to treat skin allergies. They work by blocking your immune system from reacting to an allergen, which can prevent itching and inflammation. They’re most effective to treat hives and rashes.

You can buy antihistamines over the counter or get them on prescription. Always ask your GP for advice on which medications to take to treat your skin allergies.

5. Wet wraps and paste bandages

In wet wrapping, warm, wet, bandages are placed on the affected area of skin over a layer of emollient or mild topical steroid cream. A dry bandage is then applied over the wet layer. This may be an effective way to cool and soothe your skin, especially at night.

Paste bandages come with ingredients that soothe itching and irritation. They can be applied to small patches or whole limbs. Paste bandages can be placed over a small layer of emollient or topical steroid.

You shouldn’t use wet wraps or paste bandages without speaking to a healthcare professional, especially when applying topical steroids to your skin. Covering up the skin can make steroid treatment stronger, so always ask your doctor for advice about this.

You can’t predict when you might want to see a GP, but you can be ready for when you do. Our GP subscriptions are available to anyone over 18 and give you peace of mind, with 15-minute appointments when it suits you at no extra cost.

profile picture of Amber Akhter
Dr Amber Akhter
General Practitioner and Lead Physician, Bupa Health Clinics



Annie Fry, Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

    • Causes of itchy skin. NHS inform., updated May 2023
    • Allergy in statistics. Allergy UK., accessed 4 June 2024
    • Eczema. BMJ Best Practice., reviewed May 2024
    • Urticaria and angio-oedema. BMJ Best Practice., reviewed May 2024
    • Contact dermatitis. BMJ Best Practice., reviewed May 2024
    • Allergy testing. Anaphylaxis UK., accessed June 6 2024
    • Emollients Factsheet. National Eczema Society., reviewed June 2023
    • Topical Steroids Factsheet. National Eczema Society., reviewed March 2023
    • Antihistamines. Patient Info., updated October 2022
    • Paste Bandages and Wet Wraps: A Practical Guide to Their Use in the Management of Eczema. National Eczema Society., reviewed February 2023

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