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A rash is a noticeable change in the texture or color of your skin. Your skin may become scaly, bumpy, itchy, or otherwise irritated. There are numerous causes for rashes, including:

  • allergies
  • medications
  • cosmetics
  • certain diseases, such as chickenpox and measles

What causes rashes?

Contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis is one of the most common causes of rashes. Contact rashes occur when the skin comes into direct contact with a foreign substance that causes an adverse reaction, leading to a rash. The resulting rash may be itchy, red, or inflamed. Possible causes of contact dermatitis include:

  • using beauty products, soaps, and laundry detergent
  • using dyes in clothing
  • being in contact with chemicals in rubber, elastic, or latex
  • touching poisonous plants, such as poison oak, poison ivy, or poison sumac


Taking medications may also cause rashes. They can form as a result of:

  • an allergic reaction to the medication
  • a side effect of the medication
  • photosensitivity to the medication

Other causes

Other possible causes of rashes include the following:

  • A rash can sometimes develop in the area of a bug bite. Tick bites are of particular concern because they can transmit disease.
  • Eczema, or atopic dermatitis, is a rash that primarily occurs in people with asthma or allergies. The rash is often reddish and itchy with a scaly texture.
  • Psoriasis is a common skin condition that can cause a scaly, itchy, red rash to form along the scalp, elbows, and joints.
  • Seborrheic eczema is a type of eczema that most often affects the scalp and causes redness, scaly patches, and dandruff. It can also occur on the ears, mouth, or nose. When babies have it, it’s known as crib cap.
  • Lupus erythematosus is an autoimmune disease that triggers a rash on the cheeks and nose. This rash is known as a "butterfly," or malar, rash.
  • RA is an autoimmune disease that can cause a rash to form on various body parts.

Causes of rashes in children

Children are particularly prone to rashes that develop as a result of illnesses, such as:

  • chickenpox, which is a virus characterized by red, itchy blisters that form all over the body
  • measles, which is a viral respiratory infection that causes a widespread rash consisting of itchy, red bumps
  • scarlet fever, which is an infection due to group A Streptococcus bacteria that produces a toxin causing a bright red sandpaper-like rash
  • hand, foot, and mouth disease, which is a viral infection that can cause red lesions on the mouth and a rash on the hands and feet
  • fifth disease, which is a viral infection that causes a red, flat rash on the cheeks, upper arms, and legs
  • Kawasaki disease, which is a rare but serious illness that triggers a rash and fever in the early stages and can lead to an aneurysm of the coronary artery as a complication
  • impetigo, which is a contagious bacterial infection that causes an itchy, crusty rash and yellow, fluid-filled sores on the face, neck, and hands

Taking care of rashes at home

You can treat most contact rashes, but it depends on the cause. Follow these guidelines to help ease discomfort and speed up the healing process:

  • Use mild, gentle cleansers instead of scented bar soaps.
  • Use warm water instead of hot water for washing your skin and hair.
  • Pat the rash dry instead of rubbing it.
  • Let the rash breathe. If it’s possible, avoid covering it with clothing.
  • Stop using new cosmetics or lotions because they may have triggered the rash.
  • Apply unscented moisturizing lotion to areas affected by eczema.
  • Avoid scratching the rash because doing so can make it worse and could lead to infection.
  • Apply an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream to the affected area if the rash is very itchy and causing discomfort. Calamine lotion can also help relieve rashes from chickenpox, poison ivy, or poison oak.
  • Take an oatmeal bath. This can soothe the itchiness associated with rashes from eczema or psoriasis. Here’s how to make an oatmeal bath.
  • Wash your hair and scalp regularly with dandruff shampoo if you have dandruff along with a rash. Medicated dandruff shampoo is commonly available at drugstores, but your doctor can prescribe stronger types if you need them.

Over-the-counter medications

Take acetaminophen or ibuprofen in moderation for mild pain associated with the rash. Talk to your doctor before you start taking these drugs, and avoid taking them for an extended period because they can have side effects. Ask your doctor how long it’s safe for you to take them. You may not be able to take them if you have liver or kidney disease or a history of stomach ulcers.

When to see your doctor about rashes

Go to the hospital immediately if you experience a rash along with any of the following symptoms:

  • increasing pain or discoloration in the rash area
  • tightness or itchiness in the throat
  • difficulty breathing
  • swelling of the face or extremities
  • fever of 100.4°F or higher
  • confusion
  • dizziness
  • severe head or neck pain
  • repeated vomiting or diarrhea

Contact your doctor if you have a rash as well as other systemic symptoms including:

  • joint pain
  • a sore throat
  • a fever slightly above 100.4°F
  • red streaks or tender areas near the rash
  • a recent tick bite or animal bite

What to expect during your appointment

Your doctor will perform a physical exam and inspect your rash. Expect to answer questions about your:

  • rash
  • medical history
  • diet
  • recent use of products or medications
  • hygiene

Your doctor may also:

  • take your temperature
  • order tests, such as an allergy test or complete blood count
  • perform a skin biopsy, which involves taking a small sample of skin tissue for analysis
  • refer you to a specialist, such as a dermatologist, for further evaluation

Your doctor may also prescribe medication or medicated lotion to relieve your rash. Most people can treat their rashes effectively with medical treatments and home care.

What you can do now

Follow these tips if you have a rash:

  • Use home remedies to soothe mild contact rashes.
  • Identify potential triggers for the rash, and avoid them as much as possible
  • Call your doctor if the rash doesn’t go away with home treatments. You should also contact your doctor if you’re experiencing other symptoms in addition to your rash and you suspect you have an illness.
  • Carefully follow any treatments your doctor prescribes. Speak with your doctor if your rash persists or gets worse despite treatment.

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Content licensed from:

Written by: Natalie Phillips
Medically reviewed on: Apr 13, 2016: University of Illinois-Chicago, College of Medicine

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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