Contact urticaria (CU) is a transient wheal and flare reaction that occurs within 10 to 60 minutes at the site of contact of the offending agent and completely resolves within 24 hours. It was first described in 1973 by Alexander Fischer. It is a form of acute urticaria (symptoms last for less than six weeks).
The risk for developing CU increases when there is an interruption of the stratum corneum due to filaggrin gene mutations or skin irritants. The common agents associated with the development of CU appear in the following sections. The occupations at the most risk of developing CU are healthcare, lab work, agriculture, hairdressers, cosmetic industry, chemical industry, cleaning, construction, catering, cooking, electronics, machinery, and metal products.
The prevalence in the general population is unrecognized due to lower disease diagnosis rates. The prevalence of occupational CU is 0.4% and accounts for 30% of all occupational skin diseases. Research indicates a prevalence of 5% to 10% for latex-related CU. The prevalence of sensitization to natural rubber latex (NRL) among healthcare workers is between 5% to 13%. NRL, cosmetics, skin creams, and sorbic acid are some of the most common causative agents identified. The Finnish Registry indicated that the incidence of CU has more than doubled between 1989 and 1994 with cow dander, NRL, flour, and grains as common triggers.
CU is classified based on the pathophysiology into:
1. Immunologic CU (ICU)
ICU involves antigen binding to IgE-specific antibodies (type I hypersensitivity reaction) on the dermal mast cells. After antigen-antibody binding, there is a release of histamine and vasoactive mediators like prostaglandins and leukotrienes, resulting in disturbance of skin microcirculation. A stronger allergic response than non-immunologic CU (NICU) gets elicited due to the ready absorption of the proteins by the skin. Prior sensitization to the agent is necessary for the reaction to develop. Repeated exposure to the antigen can lead to progressive worsening of symptoms. Concomitant history of other atopic disorders like personal or family history of asthma, eczema, and hay fever is a risk factor. The reaction spreads beyond the site of initial contact and progresses to generalized urticaria, even leading to anaphylactic shock. This progression of symptoms in a step-wise manner has been described in four stages as 'contact urticaria syndrome.'
There are two broad categories of agents causing ICU.
2. Non-immunologic CU (NICU)
NICU is less severe and more common than ICU. There are no specific antibodies against the causative agents. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) inhibit the response showing that prostaglandins (Ex. prostaglandin D2) may play a role in the pathogenesis. Histamine has not shown to play a role since antihistamines did not have any inhibitory effect. Other proposed mechanisms include direct capillary damage at the site of contact leading to the non-IgE mediated release of vasoactive amines, prostaglandins, leukotrienes, and acetylcholine. Unlike ICU, there are no systemic manifestations, and the reaction remains localized. Prior exposure to the antigen is not necessary, and it can present on initial skin contact with the allergen. The symptoms vary depending on the site of exposure, the concentration of the substance, and the mode of exposure.
NICU agents can classify into the following types:
Described in Table 1 are some of the common causative agents for NICU. There is an overlap in the causative agents between ICU and NICU.
3. CU due to an unknown mechanism
Some reactions of CU have unknown mechanisms that remain unclassified. Ammonium persulphate is a classic example of this type of response. CU due to ammonium persulphate can be mediated by type 1 (IgE-mediated) or by classical pathway (IgG or IgM-mediated).
Protein contact dermatitis
Protein contact dermatitis (PCD) was first described in kitchen workers who had localized dermatitis of the hands and forearm. PCD is chronic hand eczema that occurs in contact with proteins, with or without a positive prick test. The pathophysiology involves repeated microtrauma to the skin, leading to the penetration of the large protein molecules. It involves a type I, type IV, or a delayed phase-type I hypersensitivity reaction. The reaction occurs within minutes of contact, but only 15% reported an immediate-type hypersensitivity reaction. Those who react to specific dietary proteins rarely present with systemic symptoms on oral ingestion. The proteins can spread from the hands to the sites of contact, including the face or abdomen.
When a patient presents to the office with symptoms and signs suggestive of CU, a good history and clinical examination aids in the accurate diagnosis of CU.
In addition to general history-taking, the clinician should focus particular attention on the history of exposure to potential causative agents in food, home/work environment, cosmetics, and personal care products. Temporal relationship from the time of exposure to the development of symptoms and time for resolution of symptoms is necessary information. Also include aggravating factors (i.e., temperature changes, physical pressure, etc.) and relieving factors like medications in history. Obtain details on the specific skin symptoms (Ex. wheals, tingling, burning, itching) and progression of symptoms. A personal and family history of atopy helps make the diagnosis of IgE-mediated ICU. Volatile proteins can cause signs and symptoms of conjunctivitis, rhinitis, or asthma when they come in contact with the mucosa of the conjunctiva or respiratory tract (Ex. flour). Other systemic symptoms like abdominal pain, itching in the mouth on oral ingestion (oral allergy syndrome), and diarrhea may develop in contact with the mucosa of the gastrointestinal tract.
Clinical presentation is commonly a wheal and flare response and urticarial swelling. Patients affected by CU can present with hives (urticaria) or dermatitis (eczema). The urticarial response appears as an erythematous swelling with surrounding pallor. In a NICU reaction, the typical wheal and flare response may be absent. The skin examination should focus on the site of involvement, the pattern of distribution, size, shape, and confluency of lesions, angioedema, erythema, pallor, dermographism, and urticarial vasculitis. CU wheals do not blister, and scaling is generally not seen. They remain transient without any residual skin changes or pigmentation. The diagnostic signs are different during an active flare vs. a period of quiescence.
PCD presents as recurrent dermatitis with urticarial plaques or vesicles. The vesicles can develop rapidly and progress to erythematous-squamous or erythematous-vesicular lesions. Paronychia with periungual edema and erythema can be a sign of PCD.
In-vivo and in-vitro methods are useful in diagnostic evaluation, in addition to history and physical examination. Skin tests are quick to perform and considered relatively safe.
In-vivo tests are most common for the diagnosis of CU. Clinical supervision with the provision to handle an impending anaphylactic shock is necessary. Both ICU and NICU reactions occur within 15 to 20 minutes or can be delayed. If testing on intact skin is negative, then previously affected skin sites are used. Positive test results require careful correlation with clinical symptoms. Medications like antihistamines, NSAIDs, and exposure to ultra-violet light can cause false-negative results. The patient should be off antihistamines for 48 hours before testing. See figure 1 for the diagnostic algorithm to test for immediate contact reactions.
For the diagnosis of ICU, the presence of IgE-specific antibodies against the causative agent is used. Based on the patient’s history, lab workup typically includes complete blood count (CBC), blood culture, erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), C-reactive protein (CRP), basic metabolic panel (BMP), thyroid auto-antibodies, anti-nuclear antibody level (ANA) and complement levels (C3, C4) to rule out differential diagnosis like systemic illness, chronic idiopathic urticaria, autoimmune diseases, infection, etc.
Most of the patients affected by CU experience relief of symptoms with avoidance of triggers and medications. The disease duration is shorter for infants and children and prolonged when associated with other atopic diseases or with other systemic manifestations as seen in ICU. Repeated exposure to the same agents may lead to a progressively severe response in ICU.
ICU has the potential to lead to life-threatening symptoms like anaphylaxis; hence, it is important to diagnose and manage these patients appropriately. Other complications include the risk of secondary bacterial infection from skin breakdown from repeated scratching.
Referral to allergist or dermatologist is necessary in severe cases.
CU is widely un-recognized, and the provider's knowledge in diagnosing and management of CU will aid in the proper patient management.
Contact urticaria is an often underdiagnosed dermatological condition that is recognized as occupational dermatoses by the World Health Organisation (WHO). It requires the efforts of an interprofessional healthcare team. The general physician is usually the first point of contact for patients seeking help and knowledge of disease presentation, testing, and management can help improve the quality of life of the patients and reduce disease burden. Due to the short time taken for symptom resolution, patients usually first present after the symptoms have disappeared, making diagnosis a challenge. Referral to allergist or dermatologist is integral while managing CU. Specialists can aid in the diagnosis of atypical presentations and management of poorly-controlled cases. Nursing plays a vital role during the diagnosis procedure due to the need to monitor patients closely for anaphylaxis. CU requires an inter-disciplinary approach for optimal results. The pharmacist should review all medications and discuss potential interactions with the prescribing/treating clinician, as well as verifying all dosing. The examples of interprofessional collaboration show how this approach can improve patient outcomes. [Level 5]
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