It may have been poison ivy, the chickenpox, a skin allergy or a reaction to something else. Whatever caused it, you have probably had a skin rash at some point in your life. Why does your skin break out in those red, itchy patches? And more importantly, what can you do about it?

Your skin protects you from bacteria, viruses and other threats. Those skin cells fight back when they detect a health threat and react with inflammation. You call it a rash, but the medical term is “dermatitis.”

Just as there are many varieties of bacteria and viruses, there are different causes of rashes that need different treatments. Some rashes can be treated with a topical ointment, while others can be caused by an illness and may need to be treated with a prescription medication.

Common rashes

Many rashes are itchy, red, irritated and possibly painful. Some clear up quickly, and others last longer. Eczema causes a dry, red, itchy rash. This condition often appears in the summer when heat and outdoor activities dry out your skin. It is treated by moisturizing your skin frequently.

A skin allergy, or allergic contact dermatitis, results in a red, itchy rash that can also produce small bumps or blisters on your skin. It starts when you come into contact with an allergen, like poison ivy, that triggers a reaction. People can also react to ingredients in other items, like soaps, creams, latex, animals, and nickel which can be found in some clothing buckles, snaps and some inexpensive jewelry. Prolonged exposure to this metal causes an allergic reaction in many people.

Poison ivy and poison oak contain chemicals that often cause allergic contact dermatitis. Wash your skin with soap and water as soon as possible after touching one of these plants. The chemical also stays on clothing for a long time, so do not forget to wash your clothes. Clean your shoes too.

Rashes can also develop as your body battles invading germs. The chickenpox virus, for example, can cause itchy spots and high fever in children. The same virus can reappear in adults as shingles, causing a painful rash and high fever.

Certain drugs or medications may also cause skin rashes. A rash can be the first sign of a serious drug reaction. Contact your doctor right away if you develop a rash after starting a new medication.

When should I see a doctor?

Many common rashes pose little risk to your overall health, but your doctor may prescribe a topical medication to reduce itching and redness. Make sure that you know what caused the rash before using an over-the-counter cream or ointment on your skin. Call you doctor if:

  • Your rash is uncomfortable or painful.
  • The rash is on your face.
  • The rash becomes infected.
  • You develop a rash after taking a new medication.
  • Your rash lasts for several days.

Home treatment

Many rashes will go away without medical treatment, and home treatment can often relieve the itching and pain. Leave the rash exposed to air if possible, and do not scratch the itch. You can also take these steps to ease the discomfort:

  • Relief from itching – Keep the itchy area cool and moist. Remember that too much washing and drying will dry the skin and increase the itching. Wear cotton clothing, and wash your clothes with a mild soap. Stay out of the sun because heat makes itching worse. An oatmeal bath may also help relieve the itching.
  • Nonprescription medication – Calamine lotion can help a rash caused by contact dermatitis (poison ivy or poison oak). A 1% hydrocortisone cream can also be used for severe itching. Do not use this cream on a fungal rash because it could make the rash worse. An oral antihistamine may also ease the itching and discomfort. Make sure that you read the labels on all medications before using them.

Be alert

Call your doctor if any of the following symptoms appear during home treatment of a rash:

  • The rash lasts longer than 2 weeks.
  • Symptoms become more severe and frequent.
  • Other symptoms develop, such as fever, signs of infection, or nausea.

Your skin is your first line of defense against disease and the outside world. If you take care of your skin, your skin will take care of you.

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