A skin rash is an area of irritated, red, and inflamed skin. (12) Rashes can present at any age and have a variety of causes, including allergies, infections, and diseases. (22) They can be short-term or chronic, and they are often itchy and painful. Continue reading below to find out how to identify and address common skin rashes.
Types of skin rashes
Almost everyone has experienced a rash in their lifetime, and it’s important to know what type of rash you have before treating it. Certain non-infectious rashes are quite common and can often be identified by their signs and symptoms. If you have a skin rash, it’s best to consult your integrative practitioner, who can evaluate your skin rash and recommend an appropriate treatment plan for you.
Dermatitis is a latin-derived medical term meaning inflammation of the skin. Our skin is covered in microbes (e.g., bacteria, yeasts) that act as a barrier against pathogens (infectious agents). When our microbiota is imbalanced, it can trigger an inflammatory response. (22) Variations in our skin microbiota can be caused by environmental and physiological factors including:
- Genetic makeup
- Geographic location and climate
- Use of personal care products (3)
There are many different types of dermatitis, each presenting different symptoms.
Atopic dermatitis is a chronic skin condition commonly known as eczema. Symptoms of eczema may include itchiness, dryness, scaly red patches, or blisters on the skin that may weep fluid and become more painful when scratched. (22)(14)
The exact cause of eczema is unknown; however, genetic factors that influence the strength of our skin barrier play a significant role. (11) Those with a family history of eczema or other autoimmune conditions, such as hay fever or asthma, may be more likely to develop the condition. (22)
Atopic dermatitis can be triggered at any age, although two-thirds of cases are diagnosed by the age of two. (22) For most people, eczema goes into remission after childhood, but flare-ups can also occur throughout adulthood. (14) There are certain factors that can trigger eczema or worsen a current flare-up, including:
- Allergies (e.g., animals, pollen)
- Certain chemicals (e.g., perfumes, pool chlorine)
- Diet (8)
- Dry skin
- Synthetic fabrics (22)
Keeping the area clean with a gentle soap and moisturizer should help relieve symptoms. (22)
Contact dermatitis occurs when your skin comes in contact with an allergen or irritant, causing the area to become red, itchy, and inflamed. (15) Depending on the cause of the reaction, other symptoms such as blisters, scaly skin, and a burning sensation can occur. (15) Common triggers of contact dermatitis include:
- Topical medications (15)
Once exposed to a trigger, symptoms of contact dermatitis will arise within minutes to hours and typically resolve within a few weeks. (15) The rash should clear slowly once the skin is no longer exposed to the irritant. Additionally, certain natural remedies, such as natural soaps and moisturizers, may help relieve symptoms as the skin heals. (15)
Seborrheic dermatitis (seborrhea) is a chronic skin condition that affects the skin’s sebaceous (oil) glands, causing them to be irritated and inflamed. Seborrhea causes itchy, flaky, white, or yellow scales and often presents in areas with more oil glands, such as the scalp and face. (6)
Like atopic dermatitis, seborrhea is highly influenced by genetics and the health of our skin’s microbiota. (6) Certain yeasts are attracted to oily areas of the skin, and research indicates that they may trigger an inflammatory response. (20) Keeping the irritated skin oil-free by using a mild soap should keep seborrhea under control. (20) Medicated shampoos, topical corticosteroids, and antifungal products can also be prescribed for certain cases. (1)
Heat rash, sometimes referred to as miliaria or prickly heat, is caused by clogged sweat glands that trap sweat beneath the skin, causing an inflammatory response. (4) Sweat glands commonly become blocked due to:
- Hot, humid weather
- Physical activity that induces heavy sweating
- Being overheated or having a fever (4)
Miliaria generally develops in skinfold areas (e.g., armpits, elbow creases) and places where clothing or accessories cause friction, such as the chest or back. (4) The area may appear red and swollen, with small, raised spots, and fluid-filled blisters. An itchy, prickly feeling will typically present in the area, but scratching these blisters should be avoided as it may lead to an infection. (18) Irritation can be managed by keeping the area cool and avoiding sweating as much as possible. Mild cases of miliaria should resolve within a few days. (4)
Hives appear as a cluster of small red bumps or form an area of welted, raised, and red skin. (16) These welts can be itchy and will become larger if scratched. Hives are formed when histamine (a biological chemical) is secreted by mast cells (a type of immune cell) due to a non-pathogenic trigger (e.g., allergen, stress). (16) Histamine dilates (widens) the blood vessels in order to increase the amount of white blood cells present, which fight against pathogens. (5) When there are no pathogens, the release of histamine can cause swelling, itching and hives. (7) Hives can have no known cause or appear due to exposure to an allergen or irritant. Common triggers include:
- Certain medications
- Common allergens (e.g., animals, foods, pollen)
- Emotional stress
- Extreme temperatures
- Insect bites (24)
Clusters of hives can appear sporadically all over the body, with each welt generally lasting up to a few hours. (24) If the cause of the outbreak is known, avoiding exposure to the specific trigger should alleviate the reaction; however, non-specific hives may require further intervention. It’s best to keep the area cool and frictionless in order to relieve irritation. (16) If you suspect your hives may be due to an adverse reaction to medication, contact your healthcare provider immediately.
Most non-infectious rashes can be managed with gentle skin care and lifestyle modifications. (17) Medicated products or further tests may be required to treat or diagnose your rash. If you have any concerns about your condition, or if it doesn’t seem to be improving, contact your integrative practitioner right away.
Avoid harsh skincare products
Keeping the affected area clean and moisturized will help prevent an infection and decrease itchiness. (13) Ingredients in harsh skincare products may irritate the rash further, so using mild products designed for sensitive skin is recommended. Gentle skincare products should not contain:
- Color additives and dyes
- Scents and fragrances (23)
Using gentle skincare products with natural, rash-relieving ingredients may also be beneficial. Finely ground oats (Avena sativa), referred to as colloidal oatmeal, offer anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties when applied to the skin. (19) Colloidal oatmeal can be incorporated into soaps or lotions, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies colloidal oatmeal products as skin protectants. (19)
Keep the area cool
Heat and sweat irritate rashes, so staying cool is important for preventing and relieving skin rashes. Take lukewarm baths and showers and avoid sudden changes in body temperature that may cause perspiration (e.g., exercise, stress). (13) Actively cooling the area down by applying a cold compress can also relieve swelling and itchiness. (18)
When our clothes are uncomfortably tight or rub against our skin, it causes friction, which often is referred to as chafing. Friction is the resistance surfaces encounter when rubbing against one another. (10) Chafing dries out the skin and makes the area tender and sore. (9) Wearing loose, light clothing and avoiding scratching or scrubbing the area should prevent friction. (13)
The bottom line
Rashes can be painful, but the discomfort can be managed with proper care. Avoiding allergens and irritants is the best way to treat a rash. Some rashes can be severe or infectious, and may require further care. If you’re unsure about your rash or it seems to be getting worse, it’s a good idea to speak with your integrative practitioner.
- Borda, L. J., & Wikramanayake, T. C. (2015). Seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff: A comprehensive review. Journal of Clinical and Investigative Dermatology, 3(2).
- Goddard, A. L., & Lio, P. A. (2015). Alternative, complementary, and forgotten remedies for atopic dermatitis. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: eCAM, 2015, 676897.
- Grice, E. A., & Segre, J. A. (2011). The skin microbiome. Nature Reviews. Microbiology, 9(4), 244–253.
- Guerra, K. C., Toncar, A., & Krishnamurthy, K. (2020). Miliaria. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing.
- Histamine: The stuff allergies are made of. (2017). National Institutes of Health. https://medlineplus.gov/medlineplus-videos/histamine-the-stuff-allergies-are-made-of/
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- Kaplan, A. P. (2019). Urticaria. World Allergy Organization. https://www.worldallergy.org/education-and-programs/education/allergic-disease-resource-center/professionals/urticaria
- Katta, R., & Schlichte, M. (2014). Diet and dermatitis: Food triggers. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, 7(3), 30–36.
- Merriam Webster. (n.d.). Definition of chafe. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/chafe
- Merriam Webster. (n.d.). Definition of friction. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/friction
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- National Institutes of Health. (2016). Rashes, dermatitis, skin rash. MedlinePlus; National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/rashes.html
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- National Institutes of Health. (2019). Atopic dermatitis treatment, symptoms, and causes. https://www.niams.nih.gov/health-topics/atopic-dermatitis#tab-overview
- National Institutes of Health. (2019). Contact dermatitis. MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000869.htm
- National Institutes of Health. (2019). Hives. MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000845.htm
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- The State of Queensland Government. (2020). What’s that rash?: With pictures. Queensland Health. https://www.health.qld.gov.au/news-events/news/whats-that-rash-with-pictures-eczema-dermatitis-hives-heat-rash-rosacea
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- Victoria State Government. (2017). Hives. Better Health Channel. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/ConditionsAndTreatments/hives