Not usually serious, but sometimes painful
Skin rashes can occur from a variety of factors, including infections, heat, allergens, immune system disorders and medications.
Skin rashes may cause discomfort or pain, as well as embarrassment about the appearance of your skin. Some skin rashes, such as heat rash and swimmer's itch, clear up on their own, but others, including rosacea and shingles, may require medical treatment. This slide show provides examples and brief descriptions of common skin rashes.
Atopic dermatitis (ay-TOP-ik der-muh-TI-tis), commonly referred to as eczema, is an ongoing (chronic) condition that causes itchy, inflamed skin. Most often it appears as patches on the face, neck, trunk or limbs. It tends to flare up periodically and then subside for a time.
At-home interventions, such as avoiding harsher soaps and detergents or other irritants and applying creams or lotions, can lessen symptoms or reduce the risk of flare-ups. Medicated creams or ointments also can lessen symptoms.
Christmas tree rash (pityriasis rosea)
Christmas tree rash (pityriasis rosea) is a fine, itchy, scaly rash that usually appears first as a single patch on the chest, abdomen or back. After this first appearance (herald patch), the rash may spread as small patches to other parts of the back and chest and to the limbs. The rash may form a pattern on the back that resembles the outline of a Christmas tree.
Christmas tree rash usually resolves without treatment within six to eight weeks, but it can last several months. Medicated lotions may lessen itchiness and may help hasten its disappearance, but they're often not required.
Contact with an irritant or allergen causes this form of dermatitis. Irritant contact dermatitis (A) usually produces a dry, scaly rash with a burning itch or pain. Exposure to a chemical, such as a cleaning product or industrial chemical causes this condition. The irritant will cause a rash on anyone exposed to it, but some people's skin may be more easily affected, and the severity of a reaction may vary with duration of exposure and the amount of irritant.
Allergic contact dermatitis (B) produces a very itchy, red rash with bumps and sometimes blisters. Common allergy-causing agents (allergens) include latex rubber, nickel, costume jewelry, perfume, cosmetics, nail polish and poison ivy. Allergic contact dermatitis affects people who develop an immune system sensitivity to the allergen.
Avoiding the irritant or allergen allows the rash to heal, and medications may improve symptoms.
A drug rash may be either a side effect of a drug or an allergic reaction to a medication. While any medication may cause a drug rash, common culprits include antibiotics, anti-seizure medications and diuretics. Some drugs are more likely to produce a rash if the skin is exposed to sunlight.
A drug rash, which usually starts within the first week of taking a new medication, often begins as discrete red spots that spread, covering large areas of the body. The rash usually resolves in days to weeks after discontinuing the medication.
A drug rash can rarely be part of a more serious, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction that affects the respiratory system and other organs. These severe reactions require emergency care.
Heat rash (miliaria)
Heat rash (miliaria) occurs when the flow of sweat is obstructed, usually due to hot, humid weather, overdressing, or tightfitting clothes.
Prickly heat (miliaria rubra) is a type of heat rash that appears as clusters of small, red bumps that produce a pricking or stinging sensation (A). Miliaria crystallina appears as clear, fluid-filled bumps that generally produce no other signs or symptoms (B).
Heat rash isn't serious and usually resolves with proper self-care methods, such as keeping the affected areas cool and dry and avoiding tight, restrictive clothes.
Intertrigo (in-TUR-try-go) is inflammation caused by skin-to-skin friction, most often in warm, moist areas of the body, such as the groin, between folds of skin on the abdomen, under the breasts, under the arms or between toes. The affected skin may be sensitive or painful, and severe cases can result in oozing sores, cracked skin or bleeding.
Damage to the skin and the warm, moist environment can easily result in bacterial or fungal infections at the site.
Intertrigo usually improves with proper self-care methods, such as keeping the affected areas clean and dry, using powders, wearing loosefitting clothing, and losing weight if appropriate. Infections related to intertrigo require drug treatment.
Lichen planus (LIE-kun PLAY-nus) usually appears as purplish, often itchy, flat-topped bumps (lesions), most often located on the inner forearm and near the wrists or ankles. Other common locations include the lower back, neck and legs.
The condition rarely worsens after the first couple of months, but it may persist for months or years. Mild cases may need relatively simple at-home care or no treatment. When symptoms are severe, such as pain or significant itching, drug treatment may improve symptoms.
Lichen planus may also affect mucous membranes, genitals, the scalp or nails. The lesions associated with these sites generally cause more discomfort. The symptoms are more difficult to manage, often persist for long periods and often recur after initial healing.
Psoriasis (suh-RI-uh-sis) is the rapid buildup of rough, scaly skin that occurs when the life cycle of skin cells rapidly increases. The accumulation of dead skin cells results in thick, silvery scales and itchy, dry, inflamed patches that are sometimes painful.
The condition tends to flare up periodically and then subside for a time before returning again.
For some people, psoriasis is a mild nuisance. For others, it can be severely disabling because the skin loses its protective function, and the condition may coexist with arthritis. Topical medications and light therapy may help reduce signs and symptoms of the skin lesions.
Ringworm of the body (tinea corporis)
Ringworm of the body (tinea corpus) is a fungal infection that appears as itchy, red, scaly, slightly raised, expanding rings on the body. The ring grows outward as the infection spreads, and the center area becomes less actively infected.
Ringworm is contagious and spreads several ways, including skin-to-skin contact or contact with a contaminated object such as unwashed clothing. Treatment usually requires an antifungal prescription medication.
A tinea infection in the groin is called jock itch (tinea cruris), and a tinea infection of the foot is called athlete's foot (tinea pedis).
Rosacea (ro-ZA-she-uh) is a chronic, inflammatory skin condition of adults that looks somewhat like acne. It causes redness in the face and produces either small red bumps or pus-filled bumps.
For most people, rosacea tends to flare up periodically, lessen in intensity, and then flare up again. Certain foods, skin products, extreme temperatures and sun exposure can trigger an episode.
Although there's no cure, treatments may control or reduce the signs and symptoms.
Shingles (herpes zoster)
Shingles (herpes zoster) is a condition caused by the chickenpox virus (varicella-zoster virus). After a person has chickenpox, the virus remains dormant, or inactive, in nerve cells. If it's reactivated during adulthood, it causes shingles.
Shingles first appears as a burning or shooting pain, tingling, or itch. A rash with small blisters — similar in appearance to chickenpox — appears later. These blisters break, leaving behind ulcers that dry and form crusts.
Shingles usually resolves within a few weeks without treatment. Antiviral drugs may lessen pain or decrease the likelihood of persistent pain after the rash has healed. Vaccination is available to help prevent recurrence, and although it's not always effective, the vaccine is recommended for most people older than age 60.
Swimmer's itch (cercarial dermatitis) is a burning or itchy rash caused by an allergic reaction to a waterborne parasite that burrows into the top layer of skin. The rash usually produces tiny bumps or blisters.
Because swimmer's itch is an allergic reaction, repeated exposure to infected water can increase a person's sensitivity and result in worse symptoms with each subsequent exposure.
Swimmer's itch isn't serious and usually resolves without medical treatment within one week. At-home remedies — soothing lotions, colloidal oatmeal baths or baking soda baths — may lessen symptoms.