How to manage allergy to adhesive bandages and tapes

Do you have skin reactions to Band-Aid and other types of sticky plasters or tapes? “Allergy” to adhesive bandages and tapes is common. Fortunately there are many readily available sensitive and hypoallergic alternatives available and ways to avoid damaging your skin.

Assortment of different natural coloured adhesive bandages and sticking plasters with text "How to manage allergy to adhesive bandages and tapes"

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What exactly is an allergy to adhesive bandages?

An “allergy” to adhesive bandages is actually not usually an allergy at all. This is because most reactions don’t involve an allergic response from the immune system. The skin reaction resulting from adhesive bandages like Band-Aid tapes is usually what is known as irritant contact dermatitis. Your skin becomes irritated from contact with chemicals in the adhesive.

Some people are in fact allergic to adhesive ingredients and experience allergic contact dermatitis. For example, someone with a latex allergy can have an allergic reaction to adhesives if they contain latex, but this is not as common. A latex allergy can cause serious reactions including anaphylaxis.

This post is going to focus on the more common irritant contact dermatitis.

What are the symptoms?

Contact reactions from adhesive bandages or tapes can happen quickly, or develop slowly and get worse over time. Common symptoms may include

  • redness;
  • itchy skin;
  • swelling or raised skin;
  • dry, scaly or cracked skin;
  • blisters, which can burst or crust;
  • skin coming away when the adhesive is removed (“skin stripping”).

Many of our family members have contact reactions to adhesives, some worse than others. In our experience, the area of skin the adhesive has been in contact with usually becomes red, raised and itchy. The shape of the affected area usually matches the shape of the bandage or adhesive patch used, and doesn’t extend outside of that.

My reactions are usually just red and itchy. One of my children has more severe reactions which cause a raised area of skin (3-4mm high), which can blister and crust. Even after removing the offending sticking plaster, the reactions can last days or even 2 weeks. This has included adhesive bandages used on areas like the knee or back, and also a reaction to some adhesive tape used on the face during an anaesthetic. This resulted in open, crusted sores on both cheeks for some days after surgery.

Raised, scaly skin reaction to an adhesive bandage applied to the knee from two different angles (Photo: Allergy Spot Pty Ltd www.allergyspot.com.au)
Irritant contact dermatitis from an adhesive bandage

How to treat contact dermatitis from adhesive bandages

In the event that you do start to react to an adhesive bandage or sticking plaster:

  • carefully remove it as soon as possible, being careful not to damage the skin underneath;
  • gently clean away any remaining adhesive;
  • apply an eczema-friendly bland emollient (moisturiser), like Epaderm, over the affected area.

Try not to scratch the affected area! A cold compress can help relieve itching.

If the skin is broken, or the reaction worsens, or you are worried for any reason, see your pharmacist or doctor for advice. You may need additional treatment such as a topical steroid cream for persistent itchy dry skin or even antibiotics if broken skin becomes infected.

You might also consider a referral to a dermatologist for skin patch testing to work out exactly what your skin reacts to (especially if you are having severe reactions or trouble finding a safe alternative product).

Alternatives if you are sensitive to adhesive bandages and tapes

It can be a bit of trial and error to find something that suits your sensitive skin. Speak to your doctor or pharmacist about the sensitive options that are available. If you are having a medical procedure or are in hospital, your treating doctor or nursing staff will be able to help with recommendations. If trying something new, it’s advisable to do a small patch test first.

For everyday use, some of the bandages and tapes that our family can tolerate include:

Many people with sensitivity to adhesive dressings also recommend Nexcare Sensitive Skin Low Trauma Tape.

Another option is to apply a skin barrier wipe like Skin-Prep or Cavilon around a wound, so that the adhesive does not come into direct contact with the skin. This can help avoid contact reactions and skin scraping when the dressing is removed. For people who need medical aids or monitors taped in place for longer periods, this can be a helpful way to reduce irritation. Speak to your treating medical professional about what options would be best for you in this case.

If you are extremely sensitive, you may need avoid adhesive bandages altogether. This is often the case with older people with extremely sensitive and delicate skin. Options for wounds include using gauze pads and a hypoallergenic netting or wrap to hold the gauze in place.

Different coloured adhesive bandages and rolls of medical tapes with scissors with text "how to manage allergy to adhesive bandages and tapes"

Practical tips for avoiding reactions

Always carry spare “safe” adhesive bandages or plasters in your bag or purse, just in case.

It is also very important to let other people know about your history of skin reactions to adhesive bandages, sticking plasters or medical tapes.

School and childcare

With children, make sure to let their carers or school know. If possible, provide you child’s school nurse and/or classroom teacher with a sensitive product that your child can tolerate.

Even when we’ve recorded an allergy to adhesive bandages in the school medical records, we’ve still had a few oversights. Busy teachers can forget when helping your child with a scraped knee in the school yard. So it’s important to teach your child to speak up for themselves too and remind the teacher or school nurse that they need a special sensitive bandage. (Although of course – and as has been our experience – young children don’t always have the confidence to do so!)

Blood tests or vaccinations

If you have to go for a blood test or injection, make sure to let the person administering the test or treatment know not to use any tape. You can either just hold the cotton wool or gauze they give you on the site until any bleeding stops, or take your own safe sensitive product with you to use instead. If you do end up with tape applied to your blood test or injection site, remember to take it off as soon as you can.

Medical and hospital records

Make sure your primary care doctor records your reaction to adhesive bandages and tapes on your medical records.

Whether you are a regular hospital visitor for ongoing treatments or go for a one off surgery, you’ll know how much adhesive is used in a hospital environment. This includes wound tapes and dressings, tapes and adhesive patches to hold IV and other lines and in place, ECG adhesive “dots”, tapes used on the face during anaesthesia and much more.

You should always disclose your sensitivity to adhesive bandages and tapes as part of the medical history taken on your admission to hospital. The hospital will note an “allergy alert” on your records. Medical staff then know to use hypoallergenic options during your stay. If you have had a reaction to a particular type of tape in the past, let the staff know.

More about sensitive skin

If you have sensitive skin, you may also be interested in Choosing the best sunscreen for sensitive skin, eczema or allergies.

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References

  • RICHARD P. USATINE, MD, and MARCELA RIOJAS, MD, University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio, Texas, Diagnosis and Management of Contact Dermatitis, Am Fam Physician. 2010 Aug 1;82(3):249-255.
  • The Australian College of Dermatologists, Irritant Contact Dermatitis
  • Australian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, Contact Dermatitis

*Disclaimer: Allergy Spot does not provide medical advice. You should always consult a suitably qualified medical practitioner in respect of your own medical conditions, symptoms or concerns. See our Website Terms for more details.

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