Contact Dermatitis

Patch Testing in Children: Not Just Little Adults

Author and Disclosure Information

Allergic contact dermatitis (ACD) is prevalent in children, often with unique allergen sensitivities. Pediatric exposures are not the same as adults and specific patch testing considerations are necessary, including reduced surface area, customized panels, and distraction techniques. Given the unique exposures in children, patch testing with customized panels is recommended

Practice Points

  • Pediatric allergic contact dermatitis (ACD) is common with children having unique product exposures.
  • Children suspected to have ACD should be patch tested with customized panels based on history and exposure.
  • Common pediatric allergens have been identified in personal care products, household products, and recreational gear and toys.



The pediatric population has a unique product exposure profile due to the many care products specifically marketed for use in children. In fact, the prevalence of allergic contact dermatitis (ACD) in children may be as high as 24.5% in the United States.1 In patch tested children, relevant positive reaction rates of 56.7% and 48% have been reported by the North American Contact Dermatitis Group and the Pediatric Contact Dermatitis Registry, respectively.2,3 In this article, we provide an overview of current trends in pediatric patch testing as well as specific considerations in this patient population.

Patch Test Reactions in Children

Several publications have documented pediatric patch test reactions. The North American Contact Dermatitis Group reported patch test results in 883 children from the United States and Canada (2005-2012).2 The most common reactions were nickel (28.1%), cobalt (12.3%), neomycin (7.1%), balsam of Peru (5.7%), lanolin (5.5%), and fragrance mix I (5.2%). When compared to adults, children were more likely to have relevant positive patch tests to nickel, cobalt, and compositae mix.2 In comparison, data from the Pediatric Contact Dermatitis Registry showed that the most common reactions in 1142 children in the United States (2015-2016) were nickel (22%), fragrance mix I (11%), cobalt (9.1%), balsam of Peru (8.4%), neomycin (7.2%), and propylene glycol (6.8%).3

Allergen sensitivities may vary based on geographic region. In Spain, children showed the highest sensitivities to thiomersal (10.2%), cobalt (9.1%), colophony (9.1%), paraphenylenediamine (8.3%), mercury (7.9%), potassium dichromate (7.9%), and nickel (6.4%).4

Pediatric Patch Testing Pearls

History of Product Use
From diapers to drama club, pediatric exposures and sources of ACD are not the same as those seen in adults. Because obtaining a medical history from a toddler can be exasperating, the patient’s caregivers should be asked about potential exposures, ranging from personal care products and diapers to school activities, hobbies, and sports.5,6 It is important to keep in mind that the patient’s primary caregiver may not be the only individual who applies products to the child.7

Application of Allergens
Children are not merely small adults, but they usually do have smaller backs than adult patients. This reduced surface area means that the patch tester must carefully select the allergens to be patch tested. For reference, the back of a typical 6-year-old child can fit 40 to 60 allergens during patch testing.8

Patch Test Chambers
In children, the use of plastic patch test chambers may be preferred over aluminum chambers. Children with persistent pruritic subcutaneous nodules induced by aluminum-based vaccines also may have delayed-type sensitivity reactions to aluminum.9 These patients could react to the aluminum present in some patch test chambers, making interpretation of the results difficult. The authors (A.R.A. and M.R.) typically use plastic chambers in the pediatric population.

Managing Expectations
As with other procedures in the pediatric population, patch testing can elicit emotions of fear, anxiety, and distrust. Video distraction and/or role-playing games may help capture the attention of children and can be particularly helpful during patch application. Children may be apprehensive about the term allergy testing if they are familiar with the term needle testing from previous allergies.5

Securing Patches
Young children can be quite active, posing another challenge for keeping patches in place. We recommend using extra tape to secure the patches in place on a child’s back. In addition, a large transparent film dressing (ie, 12×8 in) can be used if quick application is needed. For extra precaution, the use of a tight T-shirt or favorite onesie during the patch test process may be helpful, making it more difficult for little fingers to remove tape edges.

Duration of Patch Testing
Some authors have proposed application of patch tests for 24 hours in pediatric patients, as compared to 48 hours in adults.10 This recommendation is based on a theory that the reduced application period will decrease the risk for irritant reactions in pediatric patients.


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