I Developed Allergic Contact Dermatitis After Having a Baby!

Hi Jennifer, I just found your blog recently and thought maybe it would be helpful for people if they heard my story too. I’ve always had dry skin and eczema throughout my life, but it was usually manageable up until this last year. I would get a flare up in the crook of my elbows or in the backs of my knees, usually attributed to heat or sweat, I’d put some cortisone cream on it and it would go away after a while. Occasionally throughout the years I would get a bad flare up, sometimes on my face and neck, but again usually way a few weeks on a steroid cream would make it go away. It wasn’t until after I had my second child in May of 2015 that it got really bad and I got to my diagnosis.

I first noticed it about a month post partum, that I was getting these bumpy rashes on my forearms, in the exact spot where my baby would rest his face when he was nursing. It was a hot summer, so at first I attributed it to heat rash. They were extremely itchy though, and I usually resorted to ice packs to try and relieve the itch, trying to avoid topical steroid creams because I was breastfeeding and the chance of absorption and transference into my breast milk. I figured a little rash was ok to put up with for a few weeks and using a steroid cream wasn’t necessary. Boy was I wrong. The rash kept popping up and spread up my arms, and onto my chest and face. Oddly enough, the rash only presented itself on parts of me that my baby was usually touching. This was really unnerving. Was I allergic to my baby? Was it something that was getting on my baby and spreading on to me? I didn’t have the rash anywhere on my legs or on the parts of my body that was covered by clothing.

The rash kept getting worse and worse as the weeks went by. I had to switch health insurance during this time, so unfortunately, as the rash got even worse as I had to wait about 2 months until my new insurance kicked in before I could see a doctor. By then my face was swollen, including my eyelids, almost swelling my eyes shut. The rash on my arms was so bad, it looked just like the pictures of your arms you have on your blog. By now I had tried using topical over the counter steroid creams but it wasn’t helping. I couldn’t sleep because my face and neck itched so much it would burn, and I scratched so bad in my sleep my arms, neck, and part of my face were raw and weeping. Needless to say it was BAD, and on top of that, I had an 8 week old baby I was taking care of! I would break down crying because I was miserable, stressed out, and exhausted.

When I finally saw a doctor I’d been dealing with this for almost two months, and I have to say, this experience has taught me that most primary care doctors are completely clueless. I saw three primary care doctors before I was finally referred to an allergist, who couldn’t help me, and who then referred me to a dermatologist. The first primary care doctor I saw ordered some comprehensive blood work that showed up nothing. He basically prescribed Hydroxyzine for the itch and told me to go home, not to take hot showers, and to moisturize, as if I’d never had to deal with minor skin dryness or mild eczema before! I was concerned about taking medication that would force me to stop breastfeeding though, so I do realize the doctor was treating me with a sort of kid gloves, and didn’t want to prescribe me anything that would transfer into my milk. Of course nothing got better, so a day later I went back and the second doctor was a lot more serious about it - ordered me to stop breastfeeding, gave me a kenalog (steroid) shot, and put me on a prednisone taper. This really upset me because I had to stop breastfeeding and had to pump and dump for 10 days, but I couldn’t keep living with this horribly itchy rash that was effectively preventing me from being able to properly take care of my baby. I was also put on Claritin and Zantac (H1 and H2 blockers). This second doctor also ordered some allergy blood tests (food and environmental). I came up with some antibodies to common environmental allergens, and the second doctor chalked it up to me being allergic to my dog, which I’ve had for 5 years! This stressed me out even more, worrying that I’d have to give up my dog that I loved like a first kid! Meanwhile, the prednisone was working and the rash completely cleared up in 3 days, but as soon as I started to taper off, the rash came back!

So I went back in a third time and a different doctor said it probably wasn’t my dog, and prescribed another course of prednisone, upped my dosage, ordered me to stop breastfeeding again, and sent me to an allergist. However, when I got to the allergist, he basically said he had no idea what was wrong with me, and finally referred me to a dermatologist.

Bouncing around 3 primary doctors and an allergist basically took 6 weeks, and I had been dealing with this debilitating rash for over 3 months at this point. When I finally saw the dermatologist, he referred me for patch testing, took a biopsy, and finally gave me some stronger topical prescription creams (triamcinolone acetonide and Elidel for my face). Fortunately by now I could start breastfeeding again but this was really taking its toll on me and my ability to care for my baby. The creams didn’t clear things up as quicly as prednisone, but it was making the rash more manageable and less itchy, and I was getting weeping sores anymore from scratching so much. However, I had to wait another 4 weeks before I could get in for patch testing.

When I finally did the patch test - I was diagnosed as being allergic to formaldehyde. After looking at the products I was using, I found it was in my baby’s shampoo and body wash! Which was why it was worst in the places my baby would touch me! And not only that, it was also in my shampoo and my handsoap. I had started washing my hands more thinking I was touching something that I was allergic too, not realizing that was making it worse. And I was also using my shampoo and hand soap to wash makeup brushes, which was making it even worse on my face! The oddest thing of all was that I had been using these same products for YEARS with no problem.

After switching out all my personal care products, I’m managing much better, but I’m realizing that just because the patch test only tested positive for formaldehyde it didn’t solve everything. The dermatologist had asked me to use CeraVe PM moisturizing lotion, but after a few months, I found that this was actually contributing to making my face burn (I think it may be the niacinamide in it). Also, my dermatologist wanted me to use Free and Clear brand Shampoo and Conditioner, which is supposedly formulated for sensitive skin. But I’m realizing in recent weeks that my scalp is still constantly itchy and when my hair gets in my face I get itchy. I’m now starting to think that I may be sensitive to Propylene Glycol, which is an ingredient in this brand of conditioner, and also present in the hyrdocortisone ointment that my dermatologist prescribed for my face and neck, which is the only part of my body that is still getting recurring rashes. Finding a shampoo and conditioner with neither formaldehyde or propylene glycol is proving really difficult though. So I’m still trying to figure this out, and having had to switch insurance again I’m getting the run around from my doctor again who doesn’t think my problem is very serious! I did manage to get an appointment with an allergist again, so hopefully something will come of it.

Anyway, sorry for the long long story (if you post this you’ll probably want to cut it down), but I did want to share, and hopefully your readers can learn a few things, namely:

- When it comes to allergic contact dermatitis and eczema, most primary care physicians are clueless. They’ll just want to keep prescribing you steroids instead of trying to figure out the problem. Which was a huge problem for me because I was breastfeeding and did not want to be continually on steroids. You have to be really pushy, or just really miserable and pathetic for them to be willing to refer you to someone who knows what they are doing
- Allergy blood testing is pretty useless in terms of finding out what’s causing contact dermatitis!
- Patch testing won’t tell you everything! Even though I now know I’m allergic to formaldehyde, and I’ve researched how to avoid it, I’m still allergic to something that’s breaking down my skin and making me itchy.
- I know you can acquire new allergies at any time, but I think pregnancy and hormonal changes had a lot to do with me developing a sudden allergy like this.
- Hang in there! After so many months, I’ve finally gotten to a place where I feel this is manageable!
— anonymous

Wow! I am so glad you figured out one of the allergen sources, holy cow. I discovered the same thing as well when it comes to primary care physicians... Allergies and skin issues aren't really in their wheelhouse. They seem to only know the most basic solutions. And we ALWAYS must be our own advocates. Even after my allergy diagnosis, a doctor told me to try Free & Clear and gave me a sample. I took it home and it had at least one of my allergens (propylene glycol) right there on the label, womp womp. 

I've heard that pregnancy can make allergies come and go and I've always hoped that it would make mine go away. Unfortunately, there's also the risk that things could get worse - like with your story! It really makes me think about the whole pregnancy thing since I haven't done it yet...

I actually didn't cut a single word out of this story. All of it is important and I prefer not to edit people's stories at all, anyways. My best wishes are with you as far as this un-diagnosed issue goes! I wonder if there's another doctor out there who can do even more extensive patch testing. Did they give you the option to test fabrics and things of that nature? If not, Dr. Scheman in Illinois is a great doctor to see! Another tip: make sure to check out this formaldehyde allergy story. It's a must-read. There are also some other stories written by people with that same allergy - just scroll down to the bottom of my site, put "formaldehyde" in the search bar and it will bring up everything (if you haven't done that already).

My heart goes out to you and this struggle you've had to deal with. As if taking care of a newborn isn't hard enough as it is! I'm glad that you've been able to find some relief and I hope you get to the bottom of this other skin issue. Thank you for sending in your story! You rock!