Skin Rash: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

By Terez Malka, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
January 25, 2022

There’s no getting around it: Skin rashes can be painful, annoying, worrisome, and sometimes embarrassing.

Whether it develops quickly or over a few days, it isn’t always easy to identify what’s causing a rash or how to treat it.

In most cases, it’s OK to wait a few days to see whether the rash goes away on its own.

But if a rash continues to cause pain or discomfort without any signs of future relief, contact your provider to determine the underlying cause and recommended treatment plan. 

To help you until you can see a doctor, in this article, I’ll explain what rash is, plus the various symptoms, causes, and treatments for rash.

What Is a Rash?

A rash (also called dermatitis) is an area of skin that is irritated, swollen, or inflamed.

Every rash is different.

Some are itchy, painful, and red, while others cause welts, blotches, small bumps, or large blisters. Rashes can also affect one area of skin or multiple areas.

They may come on quickly or develop over time.

Though they can be upsetting, bothersome, and painful, most rashes aren’t contagious or dangerous to others.

For a mild rash with no other symptoms, it’s OK to wait and see if the rash goes away on its own in a few days.

If not, over-the-counter (OTC) treatments and home remedies treat many rashes.

However, if a rash lasts for a few days, spreads, becomes painful or infected, or you develop a fever, see your doctor.

You may have a medical condition that requires treatment. 

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Symptoms of a Rash

While different rashes cause a wide array of symptoms, generally, a rash involves a change in the skin’s color, feeling, or texture.

Some specific symptoms of a rash include:

  • Dry, red, itchy skin
  • Small blisters or bumps
  • Thick pink or red patches on the skin
  • White or silvery scales on the skin
  • Painful patches of skin
  • Scaly scalp
  • General itchiness

What Causes Rashes?

There are many possible causes of a skin rash, including chemical irritants, allergies, heat, stress, insect bites, autoimmune conditions, medications, and infections.

Below are some of the common causes of skin rashes.

Intertrigo

Intertrigo is a common inflammatory skin condition caused by skin-to-skin friction that’s often intensified by heat or moisture.

Babies are especially at risk of intertrigo because they’re more likely to have moist skin folds in close contact with one another.

Common places where intertrigo occurs include:

  • The crease of the neck
  • Armpits
  • Beneath or between the breasts
  • Between belly folds
  • Between the buttocks
  • In the groin or scrotum
  • Inner thighs
  • Between toes and fingers

Though intertrigo is not an infection, it can lead to a secondary bacterial or fungal infection, including a yeast infection.

The main way to treat intertrigo is by keeping the area dry, clean, and cool with towels, hairdryers, breathable fabrics, and talcum powder.

If an infection occurs, talk to your healthcare provider about antifungal or antibiotic treatments.

Psoriasis

Psoriasis is a chronic skin disorder that causes thick pink or red skin patches that are often covered with white or silvery scales called plaques.

In most cases, psoriasis covers only a few patches of skin, but in severe cases, it can cover a larger area of the body.

The places most commonly affected by psoriasis are the:

  • Elbows
  • Knees
  • Face
  • Scalp
  • Fingernails and toenails
  • Genitals
  • Lower back
  • Palms and feet

Doctors believe that an immune disorder causes psoriasis, which runs in families.

Several therapies, including steroid creams, moisturizers, and medicated lotions, can treat psoriasis.

Allergic reactions to medications

Allergic reactions can happen if you take an oral medication or apply a topical medication that contains an ingredient you’re allergic to.

For example, antibiotic creams and oral antibiotics are known to cause allergic skin reactions in some people.

If you suspect that a rash is due to a medication, contact your healthcare provider immediately.

Hives

Also known as urticaria, hives are raised, itchy, red bumps.

These welts can range in size from a few millimeters to several centimeters or inches in diameter.

Hives can appear anywhere and even change location and size.

Typically triggered by allergies, rapid temperature changes, or even stress, hives aren’t contagious.

They usually go away after the allergic reaction ends and do not cause life-threatening complications.

In some cases, hives are part of a more serious, life-threatening, allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.

If you have hives accompanied by nausea, vomiting, mouth or throat swelling, or difficulty breathing, seek emergency medical care right away.

Eczema

Eczema (atopic dermatitis) refers to several types of allergic skin conditions that cause itchy, dry, red rashes.

Though eczema can appear anywhere on the body, it most commonly affects the face, hands, feet, inner elbows, and backs of the knees.

Eczema tends to be chronic, however, the severity of the condition can change over time.

Though there is no cure, treatments such as OTC and prescription creams can help alleviate symptoms.

Contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis occurs when your skin comes into contact with irritants (like chemicals found in soaps, detergents, and fabric softeners) or has an allergic reaction to something you’ve touched.

This type of rash can cause redness, itching, swelling, and stinging.

You may also experience blistering or an oozy rash, like those caused by poison ivy and poison oak. 

Contact dermatitis is not contagious and cannot be spread through the fluid present in blisters.

If a contact dermatitis reaction involves large areas of the body, your face or genitals, or is showing signs of infections, speak with a healthcare provider.

Prickly heat

Also called miliaria, prickly heat is a type of heat rash that affects adults, children, and babies.

Mild prickly heat causes clear blisters. Deeper infections cause red bumps, itching, and pus-filled sacs.

Most heat rashes heal by cooling the skin.

See a healthcare provider if the rash worsens or you notice any swelling or pus.

Hand, foot, and mouth disease (HFMD)

HMFD is common in young children and very contagious.

Symptoms of HFMD include fever and flu-like symptoms, mouth sores, and a skin rash.

The rash usually occurs on the palms of the hands and may also show up on the knees, elbows, buttocks, or genital area.

The skin rash usually looks like flat, red spots and may blister.

It’s suggested to treat HFMD at home, as there is no specific medical treatment for the disease.

However, you should see a healthcare provider if:

  • Your child is not drinking enough to stay hydrated
  • Symptoms are not improving after 10 days
  • Your child has a weakened immune system
  • Symptoms are severe
  • Your child is very young, especially younger than 6 months

Chicken pox

Chicken pox is a highly contagious illness caused by the varicella-zoster virus.

The most recognizable symptoms of chicken pox are its raised, itchy bumps and blister-like rashes.

In most cases, symptoms subside within a week or two and can be treated at home with a cold compress and OTC fever-reducing medication like ibuprofen.

Since the chicken pox vaccine became available in 1995, the virus has become less common, but both adults and children still contract it.

Impetigo

Impetigo is a highly contagious bacterial skin infection that mostly affects infants and young children.

The tell-tale reddish sores usually form around the nose and mouth, though they can occur elsewhere on the body.

After a few days, these sores form a honey-colored crust and then begin to ooze.

Treatment requires antibiotic ointment or cream, or oral antibiotics for more severe cases.

Rosacea

Rosacea is a long-term disease that can cause:

  • Frequent redness in the face
  • Flushing
  • Small red lines under the skin
  • Acne
  • A swollen nose
  • Thick skin
  • Red, dry, or itchy eyes

While experts don’t know what causes rosacea and there is no cure, treatments such as topical creams, oral antibiotics, and laser therapy can help.

Avoiding triggers and wearing sunscreen also help manage rosacea.

Treatment for a Skin Rash

Many possible treatments can help clear up different rashes.

It’s important to speak to a healthcare provider to determine which treatment option, if any, is right for your symptoms.

Medications

Some skin rashes, including psoriasis and eczema, may require prescription lotions, ointments, and medications to manage symptoms.

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications

In some cases of a rash, OTC medications like hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion can help soothe the affected area.

Other OTC medications like ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) may help alleviate any pain associated with a rash. 

Antihistamines like loratadine (Claritin), diphenhydramine (Benadryl), and cetirizine (Zyrtec) can be very helpful in the treatment of rashes and itching.

Home remedies

Home remedies may help soothe the discomfort and pain caused by some skin rashes.

For example, a cool bath with baking soda, uncooked oatmeal, or colloidal oatmeal may help to ease itching caused by chicken pox, poison ivy, and poison oak. 

Before trying any home remedy, talk to a healthcare professional to determine whether the treatment will make your symptoms better or worse.

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When to See a Doctor

If you experience severe symptoms or if signs of a new rash don’t go away on their own within a week, contact your provider.

They can determine the cause of the rash as well as the best treatment option.

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app? Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the most common skin rash?
There are several common skin rashes, including atopic dermatitis, contact dermatitis, intertrigo, viral rashes, and heat rash.
Does COVID-19 cause a rash?
Though it’s not one of its more common symptoms, COVID-19 has been known to cause a rash.
How can you tell if a rash is serious?
Most rashes start to get better within a week. If your rash does not improve in that time, or if you experience any severe symptoms, talk to your healthcare provider.
How do I get rid of my rash?
Treatment for a skin rash varies depending on the type of rash. If you’re experiencing new symptoms, contact your healthcare provider for a diagnosis and treatment plan.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Terez Malka, MD

Dr. Terez Malka is a board-certified pediatrician and emergency medicine physician.