A skin rash is an area of skin that has become swollen, inflamed, or irritated. Skin rashes can include skin bumps that look like pimples or sores; blotchy, scaly or red skin; and itchy or burning skin. Allergens, heat, and certain medical conditions (some more serious than others) can all cause skin reactions like these. Some skin rashes occur right away, while others take some time to develop. Some tend to occur on the face while others flare up on the arms, legs, or torso. Location, appearance, and color of a skin rash are all factors in determining the right diagnosis and the right treatment.
It’s important to note that the word “rash can mean a whole lot of things to a whole lot of different people, ” says Whitney High, MD, the director of dermatopathology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver, and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology. “To a dermatologist, rash is an extremely broad term, ranging from connective tissue disease like lupus, to infections, to something very obvious” — for example, after using a new laundry detergent, you notice redness and irritation in your underarms; when you switch back to your old detergent, it goes away.
Some rashes may be relatively harmless and easy enough to take care of at home while others can be more problematic. So how do you know when to see your doctor for medical treatment? Isabela Jones, MD, a dermatologist at McLean Dermatology and Skincare Center in McLean, Virginia, recommends seeking medical attention if any of the following symptoms are also present:
- Fever, which “can indicate the presence of an infection, serious reaction to a medication, or rheumatologic disease, ” says Dr. Jones.
- Blisters or open sores on the skin, mouth, or genitalia. “Some benign rashes, like poison ivy, can cause small blisters in the skin. However, many times blisters and open sores can indicate a serious or life-threatening condition that requires immediate intervention, ” she notes.
- A rash that is painful and that is all over the body or spreading rapidly.
- A rash that has not improved with home care.
Dr. High notes that if you’re feeling well and the condition is not interfering with your quality of life, it’s fine to try reasonable home remedies, such as hydrocortisone cream. But if the irritation persists, however innocuous it may seem, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor. “Usually, if a rash has not improved within two weeks of starting home care, seeking medical care would be recommended, ” says Jones. “Contacting a dermatologist or primary care provider is never a bad idea if someone is uncertain about how to treat the rash, or is generally worried about the appearance of the rash, ” says Jones.
If you're suffering from a skin rash, check out the following images to see if it could be one of these. (Warning: A few of these rashes might be a little tough to look at. )
Chickenpox: A Skin Rash Made Up of Blisters
The virus known as varicella zoster, more commonly called chickenpox, creates a skin rash of itchy blisters on the face that spreads down to cover the chest, back, and the rest of the body. It's typically accompanied by fever and headache. Because a vaccine is available, chickenpox is less common now, though it still occurs, especially in children under age 12. Treatment is aimed at controlling symptoms, including fever, with non-aspirin pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil), and soothing the itch with oatmeal baths. People with chickenpox should avoid young children, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems, because chickenpox is highly contagious for those without prior exposure or who did not receive the vaccine.
Rubella: Small, Red Spots All Over the Skin
Another viral skin rash that affects children and young adults is rubella, or German measles. Rubella causes a rash of red skin spots that spreads like chickenpox from the face down. The skin rash can be itchy. Other symptoms include sore throat, fever, swollen glands, headache, and runny nose. There is a vaccine for rubella, and the Centers for Disease Control note that the virus has been eliminated from the United States, but it is still common in other countries. Rubella can be very dangerous for pregnant women because it can cause birth defects. Treatment includes rest and acetaminophen to relieve discomfort.
Hives: Sudden, Itchy Skin Bumps and Welts
Urticaria, also known as hives, is a skin rash that comes on suddenly and causes pale pink or red, itchy welts, which sometimes burn or sting. This skin condition can occur anywhere on the skin. Up to 20 percent of people may experience hives at least once in their lifetime. Hives may last for a few days or a few weeks and may be caused by an allergic reaction, typically to a food or medication or a recent cold or illness. The most common treatment is to avoid the cause and treat the symptoms with an antihistamine medication. Speak to a physician if an individual welt or hive lasts longer than 24 hours and is associated with any pain or fever.
Skin Rashes Caused by Allergic Reactions to Medication
There are two main types of drug-induced skin rashes. One is immediate — associated with hives, itching, and often with breathing difficulty, and tongue or lip swelling. If this happens, it is important to seek medical attention right away.
A drug rash can also occur several days to even weeks later. These may include skin bump eruptions, purple or red skin discoloration, or scaly and thickened areas of skin. This skin condition can occur anywhere on the skin or even inside the mouth. In rare cases, such as those accompanied by fever, pain, swelling, eye, mouth, or genitalia involvement, drug-induced rashes can be serious or even fatal, so check with your doctor. Treatment is to stop taking the drug and manage the symptoms with antihistamines or steroids.
Prickly Heat: A Skin Rash When Sweat Blocks Pores
Prickly heat, or heat rash, causes red skin that stings and itches. Small skin bumps may form as well. Heat rash is caused when sweat gets blocked in your pores. This is a common rash in babies, but can occur at any age. This skin condition tends to form where skin rubs against skin or clothing, such as in skin folds of the neck, breasts, groin, and underarms. The best treatment is to cool off, dry off, and reduce friction.
Intertrigo: An Itchy Rash in the Folds of the Body
Intertrigo is a skin condition that occurs in skin folds, under the breasts, on the inner thighs, under armpits, or under belly folds. Chafing causes a rash of red skin or brown skin that can get infected with yeast or bacteria and becomes raw. The skin rash may ooze and itch. This rash is more common in people who are overweight and in people with diabetes. Treatment involves keeping the areas dry, treating infections, and using antibiotic, antifungal, or steroid creams.
Rosacea: Redness and Inflammation on the Face
Rosacea is a common skin condition that occurs on the faces of adults. Symptoms of rosacea include redness of the cheeks, nose, forehead, and chin. Small blood vessels may be seen on the surface of the red skin, along with skin bumps and pimples, though this is not related to acne breakouts. Rosacea typically only affects the face, though in some cases it appears on the neck, chest, ears, scalp, or even the eyes. The cause is unknown and there is no cure, although treatment with antibiotics can minimize symptoms.
Eczema: Red, Dry, Itchy Skin Anywhere on the Body
Another word for eczema is dermatitis, or inflammation of the skin. Eczema causes your skin to be itchy, cracked, red, and sometimes oozy. Scratching makes your skin red and inflamed. Eczema is not contagious, and common causes include detergents, soaps, wool, and synthetic fibers, dry skin, and stress. Eczema is common in babies and children, but can be seen at any age. The best treatment is avoiding substances that your skin is sensitive to and following a regular moisturizing skin care routine. Some topical and oral medications can help ease symptoms.
Contact Dermatitis: A Skin Rash Caused by Irritation or Allergy
Contact dermatitis can be caused by any allergy-causing substance or irritating substance that touches your skin. Irritating substances are more common and include solvents, pesticides, and detergents. Allergic contact dermatitis is commonly seen with poison ivy, cosmetics, certain metals such as nickel, and medications that are applied to the skin. The skin rash of contact dermatitis can appear as red skin, skin bumps, blisters, scales, crusts, or sores. Itching is common. Treatment of contact dermatitis includes washing the skin and using anti-itch lotions and steroids.
Impetigo: A Skin Rash Caused by Bacteria
Impetigo is a rash caused by a skin infection, usually traced to one of two bacteria, group A streptococcus or Staphylococcus aureus. This skin rash appears as brown, crusty sores or blisters around the nose or mouth area. The rash is very itchy and very contagious. Scratching the rash and then touching other areas of the body, or other people, will cause it to spread. Treatment of impetigo is with antibiotic creams or lotions, and for more severe cases, with oral antibiotics.
Psoriasis: A Disease Affecting the Growth Cycle of Skin Cells
Psoriasis is a chronic inflammatory disease that can cause patches of thick, dry skin covered with silvery scales. Known as plaques, these itchy, raised patches can appear anywhere on the body. An estimated 7. 5 million Americans have psoriasis, which is thought to occur when a faulty immune system accelerates the growth cycle of skin cells. Up to a third of people with the condition also suffer from psoriatic arthritis, which causes joint pain and swelling. The exact cause of psoriasis is unclear, but genetics play a role. Treatments such as topical creams, light therapy, and medications can help manage psoriasis symptoms.