When to See a Doctor for a Rash

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Most skin rashes are more annoying, itchy or painful than serious. Our skin is the largest organ of our body and, for adults, it can cover up to 22 square feet and weigh up to 8 pounds. With so much of it, it’s not unusual for parts of our skin to become irritated or inflamed from time to time. But how can you tell if a skin rash is something you can care for at home, if it’s an allergic reaction, or something more serious like a shingles rash?

Common Causes of a Rash

There are many reasons someone may develop a rash and there are times when the cause is never discovered. Here are some of the most common rashes in the United States:

  • Contact dermatitis: Contact dermatitis is caused by coming in contact with something that causes irritation to the skin. It could be a harsh substance like a household cleaner, or something you are allergic to, such as latex or poison ivy.

  • Atopic dermatitis (eczema): This causes red patches or spots with rash.

  • Psoriasis: Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease that causes rough, scaly spots or rashes. They can be mildly itchy or quite painful.

  • Heat rash: Heat rashes occur when you are hot and sweating. They are common among babies in the hot summer months.

  • Intertrigo: This is a skin-to-skin rash, so is most commonly found in places where skin rubs together, like beneath the breast and in the folds of the abdomen or groin.

  • Shingles (herpes zoster): Shingles can only occur in people who have had chickenpox. The chickenpox virus remains dormant in your body for many years, and reappears as shingles.

  • Athlete’s foot (tinea): This condition can actually occur anywhere on the body, particularly where the skin is moist, like the groin.

  • Cellulitis: Cellulitis is an infection of the skin.

  • Rosacea: Rosacea is a chronic condition that causes redness on the face.

  • Lupus: A lupus rash is a common symptom of lupus, an autoimmune disease. It appears on the face and is shaped like a butterfly.

Rashes may also appear as a side effect of a medication or if you are allergic to it. These reactions occur most often when you are taking a drug for the first time, but they can also appear after you have been taking it for a while.

Rash Treatment at Home

Most rashes can be treated at home. The goals are to reduce the pain or itching, and to reduce the risk of scratching or tearing the skin, which can lead to infections. Here are some suggestions:

  • Wash the area gently with mild soap and cool water. Pat dry; do not rub.

  • If possible, allow the rash to be exposed to room air, to help keep it dry.

  • If the rash is in a spot that must be covered with clothing, cover it loosely with a gauze bandage so it doesn’t rub against your clothing. Change the gauze so it stays dry.

  • Add some oatmeal or oatmeal bath treatment to a bath.

  • Stay out of the sun.

  • Apply calamine lotion or, if the skin is very itchy, a hydrocortisone cream.

  • Severe itching may ease with oral antihistamines like Benadryl.

When to See a Doctor for a Rash

Rashes can be a sign of something more serious so if you are concerned about a rash, it is best to consult with your doctor. You should also see your doctor if the rash:

  • Is on your face

  • Is on your genitals

  • Appears when you start taking a new medication

  • Lasts for more than a few days

  • Appears to be getting worse instead of better

  • Spreads suddenly

  • Accompanies a fever or other signs of infection or illness

  • Changes in appearance (develops blisters, for example)

  • Shows symptoms of infection (pus, painful to touch, swelling, fever)

  • Also has purple or blood-colored spots

If you suspect or know you have been bitten by an insect, particularly a tick, and you develop a rash, you should see your doctor as soon as possible to rule out illnesses like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Who to See for a Rash

If your rash accompanies signs of a severe allergic reaction, you should seek emergency help right away. An emergency room doctor will assess the rash and determine how best to treat you. Otherwise, if you need to see a doctor, you would probably see your family doctor or primary care physician. Your doctor will advise you on how best to manage the rash.

If your rash is complicated, you may be referred to a specialist for further care. A doctor who specializes in conditions of the skin is a dermatologist. However, if the rash is caused by an illness, you may be referred to a different type of specialist. For example, a rheumatologist treats lupus, while an allergist specializes in managing people with allergies. Check with your insurance company beforehand to see if your primary doctor must give you a referral for the specialist.

Rashes are so common, we may not pay attention to them unless they interfere with our activities. The good news is most rashes go away on their own or with treatment, such as creams or ointments. If you get recurrent rashes, speak with your doctor about what might be causing them and how to best prevent them.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 12
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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