What is rash?

Rash: Overview

A rash is any irritation or inflammation of the skin. Rashes have many possible causes, including allergy, infection, illness, heat, and emotional stress.

Generalized rash

Generalized rashes affect a large area and cover most of the body or several parts of the body. A generalized rash may be caused by an illness that affects another part of the body as well as the skin.

Common causes of a generalized rash are:

  • Viruses, such as chickenpox or roseola. Viral illnesses that cause a rash are common in children.
  • Common skin conditions, such as eczema or prickly heat.
  • An allergic reaction to food, medicine, or other substances.

How a rash looks, how an illness develops, what other symptoms are present, and what illnesses are present in the community will help determine what treatment is needed.

Rash Areas on the Body

Places on the body where rashes are common

Rashes often form on certain parts of the body that are moist and in spots where skin touches skin. For example, they are common in the armpits, groin, back, feet, and toes. They are also common under the breasts and belly, inside the elbows, and behind the knees.

Relieving itching from a rash

Try these tips to help relieve itching from a rash.

  • Keep the itchy area cool and moist.

    Put cloths soaked in ice water on the rash a few times a day. Too much wetting and drying will dry the skin, which can increase itching.

  • Keep cool, and stay out of the sun.

    Heat makes itching worse.

  • Add a handful of oatmeal (ground to a powder) to your bath.

    Or you can try an oatmeal bath product, such as Aveeno.

  • Avoid scratching as much as you can.

    Scratching leads to more scratching. Cut nails short or wear cotton gloves at night to prevent scratching.

  • Wear cotton clothing.

    Don't wear wool and synthetic fabrics next to your skin.

  • Use gentle soaps on your skin.

    Examples are Basis, Cetaphil, Dove, and Oil of Olay. Use as little soap as you can. Don't use deodorant soaps.

  • Wash your clothes with a mild soap, rather than a detergent.

    Try using ones like CheerFree or Ecover. Rinse twice to remove all traces of the soap. Don't use strong detergents.

  • Don't let the skin get too dry.

    Dry skin may make itching worse.

  • Try nonprescription medicines for itching.

    Carefully read and follow all label directions on the medicine bottle or box.

    • Try calamine lotion for a rash caused by contact dermatitis, such as poison ivy or poison oak rashes.
    • For severe itching from contact dermatitis, apply hydrocortisone cream 4 times a day until the itch is gone. But don't use this cream on a fungal rash, because it can make the rash worse.
    • If itching affects your sleep, ask your doctor if you can take an antihistamine that might reduce itching and make you sleepy, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl). Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
  • Take breaks.

    Take several breaks during the day to do a relaxation exercise if stress appears to cause your itching or make it worse. In particular, do it before you go to bed. Sit or lie down, and try to clear your mind. Manage your stress by relaxing every muscle in your body, starting with your toes and going up to your head. Doing this may help your symptoms.

How can home treatment help a rash?

Home treatment often can relieve discomfort and itching until a rash clears up. If you have come in contact with a substance that causes contact dermatitis (such as poison ivy, oak, or sumac), immediately wash the area with a lot of water. If you can, use liquid dish soap or a mild soap and very warm running water.

Over-the-counter medicines may help relieve itching. Be sure to follow the instructions on the label. Some over-the-counter medicines may caution against use in the genital area or caution use for children.

  • Zinc oxide ointment is soothing to irritated skin.
  • Calamine lotion is helpful for contact dermatitis, such as poison ivy or oak rashes.
  • For severe itching, apply hydrocortisone cream (1%) 3 times a day until the itch is gone.
  • Do not use the cream on children younger than age 2 unless your doctor tells you to.
  • Do not use in the rectal or vaginal area in children younger than age 12 unless your doctor tells you to.
  • If itching affects your sleep, ask your doctor if you can take an antihistamine that might reduce itching and make you sleepy, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl). Be safe with medicines.

Rash: When to call

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have signs of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness.
    • Red streaks leading from the area.
    • Pus draining from the area.
    • A fever.
  • You have joint pain along with the rash.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • Your rash is changing or getting worse. For example, call if you have pain along with the rash, the rash is spreading, or you have new blisters.
  • You do not get better after 1 week.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.