Rashes: Overview

"Skin rash" is a general term that describes a group of spots, an area of inflammation, or changes in the color or texture of the skin.  Skin rashes may be associated with itching, tingling, burning, pain, swelling – or no discomfort at all.  Skin rashes may or may not be contagious.  Some skin rashes affect the whole body (generalized); others appear on discrete areas of the skin (localized).  Skin rashes can be short-lived, recurrent or chronic.

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There are hundreds of different types of skin rashes.  Almost everyone, at some point in their lives, will encounter skin rashes.  From diaper rash and cradle cap (in infants), through ringworm and chicken pox (children), acne and athlete's foot (teens), psoriasis and rosacea (adults), to shingles and scabies (seniors), they can affect us at different stages of life.  Most skin rashes, however, don't discriminate by age.

Causes and Development

The precise cause of many skin rashes, such as psoriasis and eczema, is still unknown.  Stress, hormonal changes, genetic predisposition, and autoimmune problems are among the factors thought to be associated with some skin rashes.

Causes include:

  • Infections: Bacteria, viruses and fungi are common causes of skin rashes.
  • Infestations: Some skin rashes are caused by tiny parasites such as lice and mites.
  • Irritants: Abrasion (clothes, diapers, etc.), heat or sun exposure, cosmetics, an overly dry environment.
  • Allergies and Reactions: Insect bites or stings, plants like poison ivy, certain foods, chemical pollutants, medications, chemicals found in household cleaners – and many others.
  • Systemic Illnesses: Skin rashes may be one of the symptoms of a primary disease like rheumatic fever, Lupus or Lyme disease.

Diagnosis and Tests

To the untrained eye, many skin rashes look very similar to one another.  Even dermatologists, trained to distinguish between skin rashes, may need to order tests to confirm a particular diagnosis.

Many skin rashes are short-lived and relatively minor, but some are highly contagious.  Skin rashes can also be early indicators of a number of serious – even life-threatening – diseases, among them, meningitis, Lyme disease, typhoid fever, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Self-diagnosis is not recommended.  See your family doctor or dermatologist if skin rashes enter your life, especially if you have other symptoms, like fever, swollen lymph nodes, infection, headache, shortness of breath, sensitivity to light, a stiff neck, or achy joints.

Treatment and Prevention

Obviously, specific treatment depends on the nature of the rash.  However, there are some general measures that can be taken to good effect in most cases.  Good skin care can accelerate healing and reduce the discomfort of skin rashes.  It can also decrease the risk of secondary infection or scarring.  If in doubt, check with your doctor to ensure that the following skin-care tips are suitable for your particular skin rash:

  • Use a mild soap, or just water, to clean the affected area(s).
  • When bathing, use warm, not hot, water.  (Very hot water will dry out your skin.)
  • Don't scrub your skin.  Ideally, use your hands, not a wash cloth, to apply soap.
  • Take showers or quick baths.  (Long soaks dehydrate your skin.)
  • Dry your skin gently, by patting, not rubbing, which can remove important natural oils.
  • Keep your skin well-moisturized throughout the day but avoid moisturizers that clog the pores or are highly perfumed.  The best time to apply a moisturizer is immediately after patting dry.
  • Wear natural fibers such as cotton, that allow air to circulate over affected areas.
  • Apply cool or lukewarm compresses to itchy or sore areas.
  • Avoid or minimize exposure to potential irritants, like harsh household cleaning products.
  • Humidify the air in your home if you have dry skin, especially in the winter months.

Keeping your skin healthy is the best form of prevention of skin rashes, and doesn't have to be complicated: Eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, keep your skin clean and well-moisturized, and protect it from the elements (especially sun and wind).  Most important of all, be gentle with your skin.

Risk factors for Rashes:


Ulcerative Colitis

Skin rashes may occur as a result of the presence of ulcerative colitis and disappear when the colitis is treated.

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