Rashes 101: Common Skin Rashes Described

A rash is an area of red, itchy, painful, irritated skin. Some rashes cause blisters and raw skin, while others cause scaly, blotchy, or bumpy skin. Rashes can be a sign of many medical problems, or they may be caused by allergies or irritating substances that come in contact with the skin. 

Most rashes are not life-threatening, but they can be a sign of something more serious, so skin rashes should never be ignored. Some rashes are easily treated with over-the-counter creams and oral antihistamines, while others require treatment from a qualified dermatology professional.

Continue reading to learn more about some common skin rashes as well as the signs and symptoms that warrant medical attention.

Allergic contact dermatitis

This is a type of eczema that is caused by an allergic reaction to a substance called an allergen. Allergens are harmless in people who are not allergic to them but cause an immune reaction in those who are allergic.

An allergen can be anything from a nail lacquer to nickel in jewelry to household cleaners to topical antibiotics – anything that comes in contact with the skin. Sometimes, a person can have contact with an allergen for years without problems and then develop allergic contact dermatitis. Even tiny quantities of an allergen can cause dermatitis (skin inflammation and irritation).

Allergic contact dermatitis is usually confined to the area of contact with the allergen, but it can occasionally become more widespread. The affected skin is typically red, itchy, bumpy, swollen, dry, or blistered.

To find out what is causing allergic contact dermatitis, a qualified dermatology professional may do a patch test. Once the allergen is identified, the individual affected must take precautions such as reading all labels carefully to avoid products that contain the allergen. A professional dermatology provider can treat active dermatitis with emollient creams, topical steroid creams, topical or oral antibiotics for secondary infections, and oral steroids if the dermatitis is severe. In some cases, immunosuppressive agents and phototherapy are other treatment options.

Irritant contact dermatitis

This is a type of dermatitis in which the skin is damaged by a physical agent such as a chemical, friction, cold, or prolonged exposure to water. Common irritants include solvents, acids, adhesives, detergents, etc. Irritant contact dermatitis is therefore common among certain professions such as hairdressers, professional cleaners, and food handlers. In a situation where someone comes into contact with an irritating agent, the agent causes damage, and the skin cannot repair itself fast enough. Also, the irritant removes the protective barrier of moisture and oil and allows the chemical to penetrate deeper, triggering inflammation and further damage.

The severity of irritant contact dermatitis depends on the strength of the irritant, the duration and frequency of exposure, environmental factors like temperature and humidity, and the susceptibility of the skin (for example, thin, very fair, or previously damaged skin is more prone to damage). Contact with a strong irritant like an acid can cause an immediate skin reaction. Milder irritants can take weeks to cause symptoms such as itching, dryness, cracking, and formation of sores.

Irritant contact dermatitis usually appears as a well-defined itchy red patch with swelling, scaling, and blistering. A qualified dermatology provider can treat the condition in several depending on the diagnosis.  Popular treatment options for irritant contact dermatitis include cold compresses, emollient creams, topical steroids, and antibiotics for secondary infection.

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Skin infections

Infections by bacteria, fungi, and viruses can cause skin rashes. The appearance and location of the rash vary depending on what has caused the infection. For instance, candidiasis, which is a fungal infection, commonly occurs in warm, moist areas like the underarms, navel, genitals, and skin folds (this is called intertrigo). The rash usually consists of red or purple patches or white flaky patches of skin in the affected area with redness, soreness, scaling, and cracks in the skin.

A qualified dermatology professional can treat a fungal infection with anti-fungal medications, which are available as ointments, creams, and tablets. Bacterial skin infections like cellulitis (a painful red rash with poorly demarcated borders), folliculitis (inflammation of the hair follicles), and impetigo (honey-crusted sores or fluid-filled sacs) can be treated with antibiotics.

It is important to see a dermatologist if you suspect an infection so that you can get the proper treatment.

Viral skin rashes (chickenpox, shingles, cold sores)

Viral skin rashes are caused by viruses. The appearance can vary, but the rashes are usually itchy, burning, stinging, and painful. The rash may look like small bumps, red blotches, or welts. Viral rashes can be confined to one part of the body or be more widespread. Some common viral skin rashes include:

  • Chickenpox: It is caused by the varicella-zoster virus. The rash starts on the chest and spreads. It consists of small fluid-filled blisters that pop, crust over, and scab.
  • Shingles: This viral infection occurs due to a reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus in the nerve cells of people who previously had chickenpox. Shingles cause a painful, red, blistering rash accompanied by fever, headaches, and nerve pain which can sometimes last for a long time.
  • Cold sores or fever blisters are caused by the herpes simplex virus. They are tiny, fluid-filled blisters that develop in groups or patches around the mouth and lips. The blisters break down and scab over, typically healing in 2-3 weeks and leaving behind a scar.

A reputable dermatology provider can prescribe an antiviral medication for a viral skin infection and rash. Cool compresses, calamine lotion, and topical steroids can help soothe irritated skin and decrease itching.

How do you know if a rash is serious?

Certain signs and symptoms can be a signal that something serious is going on. If you notice the following symptoms, you should see your dermatologist or go to the emergency room immediately:

  • A rash that is present all over your body may indicate something serious, such as an allergic reaction.
  • The presence of fever along with a rash could be due to an infection and requires medical care.
  • A rash that begins suddenly and spreads rapidly could be due to allergies, which can be serious and may cause breathing problems, in which case you should call 911 or go to the emergency room.
  • A painful rash should be evaluated by a physician.
  • An itchy rash can lead to secondary infections due to scratching, with oozing, crusting, pain, warmth, and red streaks – this should be evaluated and treated by your dermatologist.

A rash can mean many things. Rather than guessing what it could be and trying to treat it yourself, it’s always better to see a qualified dermatology provider, like the ones here at Dermatology Center of Atlanta, who can diagnose and treat your rash properly.

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