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Causes and Treatments for a Skin Rash

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Learn about what can cause skin rashes and how to treat skin rashes

By Katherine Solem 

 

Skin rashes, also known as dermatitis, are characterized by swollen or irritated skin. This condition most commonly occurs in response to touching an irritant or something you are allergic to. Although some rashes will become immediately visible upon contact, other rashes can take up to several days to fully form. Once formed, these rashes often itch and can be very irritating. Learn more about the causes and how to get rid of these itchy skin rashes.

 

Causes of Rashes

See pictures of skin rashes.

  • Contact dermatitis: Rashes occur most often due to physically coming into contact with an irritant. Irritants can include chemicals in elastic or latex, cosmetics, soaps, detergents, chemicals in clothing and plant based chemicals found in poison ivy, oak or sumac. If you have recently started using a new cosmetic or soap, worn new clothes or come into contact with any of these things for the first time, this is likely the cause of your rash; try eliminating them from your daily routine. (See a picture of contact dermatitis rash.)
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  • Diaper rash: This is a general term for any rash a baby develops that is in the area a diaper usually covers. Most often, diaper rashes are caused by contact dermatitis. (See a picture of diaper rash.)
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  • Seborrheic dermatitis: While this condition is harmless, it is characterized by red patches around specific parts of your body including your eyebrows, eyelids, mouth, nose, trunk and behind your ears. When it occurs on your scalp, it is more commonly referred to as dandruff in adults or cradle cap in infants. 
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  • Eczema: Also known as atopic dermatitis, this rash is most often itchy, red and scaly. This rash occurs most often in individuals who suffer from allergies or asthma.
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  • Psoriasis: An itchy, red and scaly rash that occurs predominantly over joints such as your elbows and knees and next to your scalp. Occasionally it also affects your fingernails.
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  • Impetigo: Impetigo is most common in children and is distinct from other rashes because it is caused by a bacteria that can actually live in your skin. This rash is characterized by sores that are red which turn into blisters which in turn ooze and crust over.
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  • Shingles: This condition is caused by the same virus that leads to chickenpox. Although you may have had chickenpox, this virus can remain dormant in your body for an extended number of years before causing shingles. This rash is characterized by painful blisters and is usually accompanied by a fever.
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  • Heat rash: When it's very hot out, the sweat ducts that your body uses to stay cool can get clogged. As a result, sweat builds up below the skin instead of getting released through your skin. This can irritate your skin and cause a rash but usually resolves itself when your body cools down. (See a picture of heat rash).
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  • Insect bites or stings: Sometimes bites or stings can also lead to rashes.
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  • Medications: Skin rashes can be a side effect of certain medications. If you have recently started using a medication, consult with your doctor to see if this may be the cause of your rash. Do not stop taking any prescribed medication before speaking with your doctor.
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  • Childhood illness:There are many childhood sicknesses that can cause skin rashes. 
       
    • Chickenpox: This disease is caused by a virus and is characterized by many small, itchy, fluid-filled blisters that can burst and leave scars. 
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    • Measles: The virus that causes measles is highly contagious through coughing and sneezing. The rash found due to measles are usually characterized by distinct areas of discoloration (macules) and raised red areas (papules). As the rash worsens, these two areas later join together. Measles is often also accompanied by a cough, fever and muscle pain. 
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    • Roseola: This is most common in young children between 3 to 4 years old and infants between 6 months to 1 year. In this disease, a pink rash characterized by small sores begins at the trunk and spreads toward the limbs, neck and face. While a rash is the most distinguishable symptom of this disease, it usually occurs following a high fever.
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    • Rubella: This disease is similar to the measles but often less severe. It is characterized by a fever and headaches followed by a rash. Although some individuals do not even notice when they have rubella, once infected, you become immune to this disease.
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    • Hand-foot-mouth disease: This disease is also spread through contact with an infected individual and occurs most often in children under 10 years old. As the name would suggest, the rash is characterized by small blisters on a child's hands, feet and diaper area. These blisters can be tender and may hurt if pressed. Most often, the rash is not the only symptom as children also suffer from fevers, sore throat, loss of appetite and ulcers in their throat, mouth and tongue.
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    • Fifth disease: This disease is characterized by a fever and a rash characterized by bright red cheeks, giving it its alternative name, ‘slap cheek.' Once infected, the rash associated with this disease can return, most often when your child's body is warm due to sunlight, exercise or fever.
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    • Scarlet fever: While this disease usually starts with a sore throat and fever, it progresses to a rash that most often originates on the neck and chest area before spreading to the rest of the body. This rash is characterized by its texture and the feel of it is rough or like sandpaper. 
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  • Medical conditions:
       
    • Lupus erythematosus: This rash is usually located on the cheeks and bridge of your nose and can get worse with exposure to sunlight. (See picture of lupus erythematosus rash)
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    • Rheumatoid arthritis: This rash is characterized by general skin inflammation or redness.
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    • Kawasaki disease: This rash is most often in the middle of the body and does not involve blisters.

 

Types of Rashes and Symptoms Associated with Rashes 

  • Fever and rash:If you or your child has a fever, depending on the type of rash you have, you may have a disease that causes rashes. The breakdowns below may help you determine if you have any of these diseases, but consulting with a doctor is always a good idea for a final diagnosis. 
       
    • Blisters: If your rash is blister-like, you may be suffering from shingles if you are an adult, or chicken pox if you are a child.
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    • Flat discoloration and raised red areas: this may mean you have rubella if the rash is not severe, or measles in more severe cases.
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    • Sores spreading from trunk towards the limbs, neck and face: If your child is between 6 months - 1 year old or between ages 3 to 4, then they may have roseola. 
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    • Blisters on hands, feet and diaper area: This is characteristic of hand-foot-mouth disease. Other symptoms of hand-foot-mouth disease include sore throat, loss of appetite and ulcers in the throat, mouth and tongue.
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    • Bright red cheeks: This is characteristic of fifth disease or slap cheek.
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    • Sandpaper-like rash: This is characteristic of scarlet fever. This is one of the more severe diseases in children and you should take your child to a doctor for a definitive diagnosis and to get a prescription for antibiotics
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  • Red patches around facial features: This is often a sign of seborrheic dermatitis. While harmless, this condition can be a nuisance.
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  • Red, itchy and scaly: This is generally a common appearance of rashes. Narrowing down the cause can be difficult. If you were just in a hot area for an extended period of time, you may be suffering from a heat rash. If you recently started using a new cosmetic or soap, warn new clothes or touched anything new, you may have contact dermatitis. New medications can also give you a rash. If none of these are the case, you may have eczema which is particularly common if you suffer from allergies or asthma. 
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  • Red, itchy and scaly around joints or scalp: This is characteristic of psoriasis.
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  • Red sores that blister, ooze and crust over: This is characteristic of impetigo. While it's most common in children, this can also occur in adults. 

 

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