A rash is a type of skin condition characterized by irritation, redness, swelling, and itchiness. Rashes can vary in appearance greatly – some are localized to just one small part of the body, while others can cover a large area.
Skin rashes are usually symptoms of underlying conditions, such as fungal and viral infections, or allergies. The treatment depends on the cause of the rash.
Contact dermatitis occurs when the skin comes into direct contact with a specific allergen or irritant, triggering an adverse immune reaction. The resulting rash may be itchy, inflamed, or red.
Common symptoms of contact dermatitis include:
- Itchy red rash that may be swollen
- Oozy and weepy skin
- Bumps and blisters
- Dry, scaly, or cracked skin
There are two common types of contact dermatitis: irritant dermatitis and allergic dermatitis.
Irritant dermatitis accounts for 80 percent of all contact dermatitis. It usually produces a dry, non-itchy, scaly, rash. Many substances that you come into contact with will cause this condition. Some people’s skin may be more sensitive to the irritant than others.
Potential irritants include:
- Industrial chemicals
- Clothing material
- Fragrance in deodorant or detergent
Allergic contact dermatitis is less common. It occurs when your immune system hyper-reacts to a substance that usually won’t cause an adverse reaction. You might get it when your skin comes into direct contact with the allergen. Often, there is a delay between allergen exposure and rash eruption.
Some substances that commonly trigger contact allergies include:
- Costume jewelry containing nickel
- Chemicals in rubber, elastic, or latex
- Poisonous plants, including poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac
The result of the allergy is a red, itchy rash with bumps. The rashes typically don’t have clearly defined edges.
Certain medications (e.g., antibiotics) may also cause rashes. It is a result of:
- An allergic reaction to the medication
- A side effect of the medication
- Photosensitivity to the medication
Drug rash may cause a red, itchy rash that may appear on your body. If you think you’re allergic to the medication, contact your doctor immediately.
A rash can sometimes develop as a result of a bug bite, such as from a flea, tick, mites, bed bugs, mosquito, or spider bites. Tick bites are particularly concerning because they may transmit disease.
Mosquito and spider bites may leave a small bite mark that is surrounded by red patches on the skin. Bites from mites and bed bugs may produce a more extensive rash and can cause itchiness all over the body.
Eczema, or atopic dermatitis, is a type of chronic autoimmune skin disorder that causes itchy, dry skin, especially in people with asthma or hay fever. The skin tends to be itchier at night. The condition is more common in babies and children, although it may begin at any age.
- Dry, red, itchy, leathery, or greasy patches of skin
- Crusty, scaly skin
- Permanent bumps
- Formation of small, fluid-filled blisters that ooze clear liquid when scratched
- Skin that swells and itches more after scratching
Eczema may start in the creases of the knees or elbows or armpits, but it often spreads to other parts of the body.
Because of the intense itchy, eczema rashes may bleed after persistent scratching. Many people with eczema experience flare-ups during certain times of the year. The symptoms tend to come and go. Over time, your skin may dry out and be prone to itching before it flares up again.
Seborrheic eczema (seborrheic dermatitis) is a type of eczema that most commonly affects the scalp. It causes redness, itchy, scaly patches, and dandruff on the scalp. It can also affect the skin surrounding the ears, nose, mouth, or forehead.
Symptoms of seborrheic eczema include:
- Greasy patches or flakes that may be white or yellow (due to excess oil)
- Itchy, burning, red, and swollen
Some infants may experience a form of seborrheic eczema known as a crib cap. It usually affects the scalp, face, ears, and armpits.
Psoriasis is a chronic autoimmune skin condition. It causes your immune system to attack your skin cells, triggering them to proliferate aberrantly.
The skin overgrowth forms a rash characterized by:
- Bumpy red marks
- Itchy and sometimes painful
- Does not weep or ooze
- Excess skin cells die and slough off, leaving a residue of scaly, itchy, sharply-defined silvery-white plaques
Psoriasis can affect any parts of your body but tends to occur on the scalp, elbows, knees, hands, and lower back.
The condition tends to flare up periodically and then subside for a time.
Systemic lupus erythematosus
The systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune condition that triggers a rash on the cheeks and nose.
Symptoms of SLE include:
- “butterfly rash” or “malar rash.”
- Severe fatigue
- Joint pain and swelling
- Hair loss
- Blood-clotting disorders
- Fingers turning blue or white and tingling when cold (Raynaud’s phenomenon)
Rosacea is a chronic skin problem characterized by redness and a small pus-filled rash on the face. Most people experience occasional flare-ups, usually in response to increased blood flow to the skin surface.
Possible triggers include:
- Certain foods
- Skin products
- Extreme temperatures
- Alcohol consumption
- Emotional stress
- Sun exposure
Candidiasis is a common cause of fungal infections. The most commonly affected areas are the moist skin folds on the armpits, buttocks, under breasts, or between fingers and toes. It can worsen in hot weather, under tight clothing, or because of poor hygiene.
Candidiasis usually begins with a rash that is itchy, stinging, burning, swollen, scaly, and red with a wet appearance and dry crusting at the edges. Eventually, the skin may become cracked and blistered
Albeit its name, ringworm is a fungal infection and is not caused by a worm. Its name is derived from the way it often causes a distinctive ring-shaped rash.
- Red, flat, ring-shaped rash with a raised border
- The edges of the rash appear raised while the skin in the middle seems healthy
- Itchy, scaly skin
Ringworms usually affect parts of your body that are exposed, such as your groin, genitals, butt, arms, legs, or thighs. The infection can spread through direct contact, bedding, clothing, heat, and humidity.
Jock itch refers to ringworm in the groin. Despite the name, anyone can get jock itch, not just athletes.
Symptoms of jock itch include:
- Itching of the groin or crotch, anal area, or inner thigh
- A slightly raised patch of dry or scaly rash in the groin area or on the inner thigh, often red and circular with elevated edges
- Itching, burning or chafing in the groin or thigh
- Redness in the groin or thigh
It is more common in young men because they tend to sweat more, especially around the groin.
Athlete’s foot (tinea pedis) is a tinea infection of the foot. It is caused by keeping sweaty feet trapped in shoes. It can also be transmitted on a locker room and shower floors.
- Itching, burning and stinging between toes or soles of feet, which may spread to the entire foot
- Blisters on the feet
- Raw skin on the feet
Pityriasis rosea (Christmas tree rash) is a fine, itchy scaly skin rash that usually is mild. It tends to appear more often in the spring and fall, especially in young women.
The condition often begins with a large, scaly, pink oval patch of skin on the chest, abdomen, or back. It may then spread to other parts of the back, chest, and neck – they may form a pattern on the back that resembles a Christmas tree.
Cellulitis is a bacterial infection in the deep layers of skin and the tissues beneath them. Symptoms of cellulitis can come on suddenly and progress quickly. It usually appears as a red, swollen area that is painful and tender to the touch.
People with symptoms of cellulitis should seek immediate medical attention. If left untreated, severe infections can spread to other parts of the body and become life-threatening.
Scabies is a contagious infestation by parasitic mites that live on and burrow into the superficial layers of your skin. This infection is usually contracted by prolonged contact with another infected individual.
The symptoms may take four to six weeks to appear. Symptoms include:
- An itchy rash of small red spots
- Pimply, made up of tiny blisters
- Raised, white, or flesh-toned lines
The itching tends to worsen at night, and scratching the rash can cause sores.
The rash tends to appear in areas such as:
- The skin between the fingers and toes
- Skin folds under the breast
- The nipples
- The wrist, palms, elbows, and armpits
- The waist or beltline
- The head, face, or neck
- The soles of the feet in infants and children
- The groin area and buttocks
Swimmer’s itch (cercarial dermatitis) is a burning or itchy rash caused by an allergic reaction to certain waterborne parasites that burrow into the top layer of the skin. The parasites soon die, but you’re temporarily left with tiny bumps or blisters. It most commonly occurs during the summer months.
Symptoms of swimmer’s itch include tingling or burning skin, reddish pimples, and small blisters that arise within days of swimming in infected water. Swimmer’s itch isn’t severe and usually clear up on its own within a week. Most cases do not require medical attention unless symptoms persist or get worse.
Shingle, or herpes zoster, is a painful rash caused by the chickenpox virus. If you’ve ever had chickenpox, the virus remains dormant in nerve tissue. When the virus reactivates, it travels down your nerves to your skin. As the virus replicates there, the shingles rash begins to form. Shingle is more common in adults aged 60 years or older.
You may experience severe pain, itching, or tingling in the affected area before the rash appears. The rash usually begins as red blotches, before turning into itchy clusters of blisters that scab over within 7-10 days, causing crusty skin. Other symptoms of shingles include headache, fever, chills, and malaise.
Hives, or urticaria, are red, itchy bumps or welts that appear suddenly and then resolve in about eight hours. The bumps usually blanch, turning white when you press on them. They tend to recur frequently. Hives can occur on any part of the body.
Allergic response to a range of substance can trigger hive formation, including:
- Foods, such as shellfish, nuts, and milk
- Medications, such as certain antibiotics and aspirin
- Insect bites and stings
Hives may also be a symptom of anaphylaxis – a severe and potentially life-threatening type of allergic reaction that requires immediate medical attention.
Heat rash (miliaria)
Miliaria rubra, commonly called prickly heat or heat rash, is a rash that causes the skin to turn red, along with a warm, stinging, or prickly sensation. It looks like a red cluster of acne or small blisters in an area where sweat has been trapped underneath layers of skin.
The occlusion of sweat ducts causes heat rash during hot, humid weather. Your body makes sweat to cool down your skin. When you sweat more than usual, your glands can become overwhelmed. The sweat ducts may become blocked, trapping the sweat deep underneath your skin. Or the sweat may leak through layers of your skin close to the top layer and become trapped there. It most commonly occurs in babies who are kept too warm. The most likely body parts to be affected include the neck and upper chest, groin, under the breast, and elbow creases.
Mono, or infectious mononucleosis, refers to a group of symptoms usually caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). It typically occurs in teenagers, but you can get it at any age. The virus is transmitted through saliva, which is why some people refer to it as “the kissing disease.”
Aside from the rash, you may develop a high fever, swollen lymph nodes in the neck and armpits, and a sore throat. Most cases of mono are mild and resolve quickly within 1 to 2 months on its own.
Causes of rashes in children
Children are particularly prone to rashes.
Diaper rash is a common type of irritant contact dermatitis in infants. It’s usually caused by sitting too long in a dirty diaper.
- Rash located in areas that have contact with a diaper
- Skin looks red, wet, and irritated
- Warm to the touch
Impetigo is a contagious bacterial infection common in babies and children. Symptoms include an itchy rash and fluid-filled blisters that pop easily and form a yellow crust. It is often localized around the mouth, chin, and nose.
Measles causes a tiny red rash with blue-white centers that spread from the face down the body three to five days after the initial symptoms appear. Other initially symptoms include fever, sore throat, watery eyes, loss of appetite, cough, and runny nose.
German measles, otherwise known as rubella, is a viral infection that triggers a rash outbreak throughout the body. The infection can spread through droplets from an infected person’s sneeze or cough. You may also be infected with German measles by sharing food and drinks with an infected person.
The symptoms of German measles are often mild. Symptoms include:
- Red rash, beginning on the face and spreads downward to the rest of the body
- Mild fever, usually under 102˙F
- Swollen and tender lymph node
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle pain
Symptoms typically develop within two to three weeks after the initial exposure to the virus.
Chickenpox, or varicella, results from infection of the varicella-zoster virus. It is a highly contagious virus that usually strikes in childhood.
- Clusters of itchy, red, fluid-filled blister all over the body
- Fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, muscle ache, headache, and sore throat
Chickenpox remains contagious until the blisters eventually scab over.
Hand, foot, and mouth disease
The hand, foot, and mouth disease is a contagious viral infection. Anyone can acquire the infection, although it most commonly occurs in babies and children.
- Rash on the hands and feet
- Sores in the mouth and tongue
- Sore throat
The rash may sometimes produce blisters that may be painful, but not itchy.
Fifth disease is a viral illness that most kids recover from quickly without complications. It’s particularly common in kids ages 5 to 10.
- Initially, begin with a low fever, headache, and mild cold-like symptoms
- After the initial symptoms, a distinctive red rash on the face that appears like a “slapped cheek” will develop
- A few days later, the rash may spread down to the arms, trunk, and legs
- The rash may eventually take on a lacy-net-like appearance
The symptoms usually last 1 to 3 weeks. During the time that it takes for the rash to completely clear, it may seem to get worse before it finally fades away.
Rheumatic fever is an immune response to strep throat or scarlet fever infections that were not adequately treated. It is not contagious.
Symptoms of rheumatic fever include:
- Painful, tender joints (arthritis), most commonly in the knees, ankles, elbows, and wrists
- Chest pain, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat
- Jerky, uncontrollable body movements (called “chorea”)
Although anyone can get the rheumatic fever, it is more common in school-age children between 5 to 15 years old.
When to see your doctor
Most rashes are not life-threatening. However, some rashes may indicate a severe medical condition that requires emergency treatment. Contact your doctor immediately if you experience a rash along with any of the following symptoms:
- Increasing pain or discoloration in the rash area
- Tightness or itchiness or soreness in the rash
- Difficulty breathing or feeling like the throat is closing up
- Red streaks or tenderness near the rash
- An extensive collection of pus
- Swelling of the face or extremities
- Fever of 100.4˙F (38˙C) or higher
- Joint pain
- Severe head or neck pain
- Repeated vomiting or diarrhea
Also, you should see your doctor if the rash starts to blister or spreads rapidly all over your body.
There are several over-the-counter and at-home rash treatments that may alleviate itching, and, in some cases, treat your rash. You may have the best success by combining several of the following methods:
Use hydrocortisone creams
Over-the-counter cortisone cream (0.5-1.0%) may ease many types of rash. It can reduce redness, itchiness, and inflammation.
Use calamine lotion
Calamine lotion can also relieve rashes from poison ivy, poison oak, and chickenpox.
Use mild soap
Use mild, unscented soaps or cleansers that are without dyes or perfumes.
Take an oatmeal bath
Oatmeal has natural anti-inflammatory and moisturizing properties that may soothe itchy and irritated skin. Try mixing ground oatmeal paste or soaking in an oatmeal bath for relief.
Try CBD oil
CBD oil has an anti-inflammatory effect and can soothe itchiness and redness. Research showed that people with psoriasis experience positive effects of CBD oil without any side effects.
For optimal benefit, you should take oral CBD supplements and also apply topical CBD balms.
Try aloe vera
Aloe vera has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties that can soothe, moisturize, and decrease itchiness. It also confers a cooling sensation that may help ease the sting of a painful rash.
Apply cool, wet compress
Apply a cold, damp compress on the rash to reduce the itch. Gently pat the skin dry after use. Repeat as often as necessary.
Try German chamomile tea
German chamomile tea can be applied as a compress to ease the discomfort of the rash. It can significantly reduce itchiness and inflammation, as well as speed up healing.
Try natural astringents
Use unscented moisturizers
If you have dry or scaly rashes, you should apply unscented, gentle, glycerol-based moisturizers to the affected areas at least once or twice a day.
Avoid substances that may trigger a rash
Do not use any cosmetics or lotions that may trigger a rash. Also, avoid nickel, jewelry, and woold if your skin is hypersensitive to it.
Most rashes are not dangerous and do not require medical treatments. However, if the rases are widespread or persist, your doctor might prescribe stronger medications. The treatment plan will depend on the underlying cause.
Steroid cream or ointment can reduce itching and treat inflammation. They work for most types of rashes. Oral steroids can be used to reduce inflammation and swelling in severe cases of rash.
Oral and topical antibiotics can fight the bacterial infection that may cause rashes.
Immunomodulators can prevent your immune system from overreacting to allergens. They can be used to treat severe cases of allergen contact dermatitis and psoriasis.
Antifungal medication can help ease the rashes triggered by a fungal infection, such as ringworm and candidiasis. Apply OTC antifungal creams, gels, or sprays to the area daily for two weeks.
The bottom line
A rash rarely causes anything more than an annoying discomfort. By identifying the underlying cause of the rash and treating it accordingly, most rashes heal within a couple of weeks.