What 4 Common Skin Rashes Look Like

How to Identify These Rashes

A rash is an area of irritated or swollen skin. Rashes on skin may be red, itchy, or painful and can involve blisters, bumps, or raw skin.

Rashes can be a response to an allergy, toxin, infection, or systemic disease. They range from minor tissue swelling to an outbreak of painful sores.

Some rashes on skin affect a small area while others are widespread. They're sometimes tough to tell apart—even for a trained eye.

Broadly speaking, rashes on skin can be classified as either infectious or non-infectious. Many types and possible causes exist.

This article will help you learn to identify:

  • Impetigo
  • Athlete's foot
  • Psoriasis
  • Shingles


Impetigo rash beneath a mans lower lip


Impetigo is a common skin infection. It's usually caused by either Streptococcus (strep) or Staphylococcus (staph) bacteria.

Impetigo is most common on the face or limbs. Its distinctive features are:

  • An eruption of red sores
  • Clear fluid or pus leak from sores
  • Formation of a honey-colored crust

Bacteria typically enter your body through a cut, scrape, burn, or insect bite.

Children often get impetigo after a cold. Using tissues makes the skin around their noses raw. And that gives the bacteria easy access. 

The honey-colored crust is usually a tell-tale sign of impetigo. Still, your healthcare provider may order a bacterial culture to confirm the diagnosis.

When impetigo involves large blisters (known as bullae), it's called bullous impetigo. It's a less common form. Young children are most likely to have it.

Impetigo may cause minor itchiness. But it's generally not painful. That sets it apart from shingles and other types of eruptive lesions.

Impetigo is typically treated with antibiotics.


Impetigo is a bacterial infection. It causes leaking red sores on the face or limbs. The fluid forms a distinctive honey-colored crust. It isn't painful. Impetigo is treated with antibiotics.

Athlete's Foot (Tinea Pedis)

Athlete's foot

 ussaquarius / Getty Images

Athlete's foot (tinea pedis) is a common fungal infection. Symptoms include:

  • A red rash between the toes or on the soles of the feet
  • Flaking or broken skin
  • Discomfort ranging from mild itchiness to painful blisters

Athlete's foot between the toes is called interdigital tinea pedis. When it's mainly on the soles, it's moccasin-type tinea pedis. Blister-like outbreaks are acute vesicular tinea pedis. (Vesicle means blister.)

Athlete's foot spreads easily in moist, unhygienic environments. That can include spas and locker room floors. It's treated with topical antifungals.

Healthcare providers often diagnose athlete's foot on appearance alone. However, other conditions, like plaque psoriasis, can cause similar symptoms, so if your rash doesn't respond to antifungals, you may be tested for other causes.


Athlete's foot is a fungal infection. It's most common between the toes or on the soles of the feet. Painful blisters may form. Athlete's foot is treated with antifungal medicines.


Psoriasis (plaque type)


Psoriasis is an autoimmune skin disorder. It's chronic and inflammatory. Triggers may include:

  • Stress
  • Medications
  • Infection
  • Skin injury
  • Environmental triggers like the sun

Between 1% and 8% of the global population has psoriasis.

In autoimmune disorders, your immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissues. This triggers inflammation.

In psoriasis, the skin cells are attacked. New ones are produced faster than the old ones can be shed. That leads to a buildup of cells—the psoriasis rash.

Plaque psoriasis is the most common form of psoriasis. Symptoms include:

  • Red or dark patches of skin covered with thick, silvery scales
  • Itching, burning, and/or soreness
  • Flaking, cracked, dry skin that can bleed when scratched

Plaque psoriasis is most common on the elbows, knees, and scalp.

Other types of psoriasis are:

Psoriasis is often diagnosed by its appearance. It may require a skin biopsy for confirmation.

No blood tests can diagnose psoriasis. Your healthcare provider may rule out similar skin conditions such as:

Treatment varies by the severity of the outbreak. It may include topical steroids, immunosuppressants, and UV light therapy.

Psoriasis sometimes goes away without treatment. It can recur suddenly, as well.


Psoriasis is an autoimmune disorder. The immune system kills skin cells and they stack up. The most common form is plaque psoriasis. Treatment depends on its severity.


Herpes Zoster (Shingles)
Flickr CC 2.0

Shingles (herpes zoster) is a painful rash. It's caused by a reactivation of the varicella virus. That's the virus that causes chickenpox.

Most people have a 20% to 30% chance of developing shingles at some point during their lifetime. High-risk groups include people with compromised immune systems. 

Shingles typically strikes later in life. Symptoms often come in two phases:

  • Pre-eruptive stage: A dull, localized ache and increased sensitivity to touch.
  • Eruptive stage: Tiny, painful blisters appear. They may burst and scab over.

Shingles is contagious during the blistering phase.

Shingles almost always affects just one side of the body. It's a nerve infection and is limited to an area of skin supplied by a single nerve. This area is called a dermatome.

The pain of shingles ranges from prickly, persistent discomfort to deep, excruciating pain.

Shingles sometimes causes long-term nerve pain. This is called postherpetic neuralgia. Older adults and those whose shingles is untreated are at higher risk.

See a healthcare provider as soon as you recognize the rash with fluid-filled blisters. Early treatment with antiviral drugs such as Zovirax (acyclovir) can shorten the outbreak. It also keeps it from spreading to vulnerable parts, like your eyes.

A highly effective shingles vaccine known as Shingrix (recombinant zoster vaccine) is available. Vaccination is recommended for all adults 50 and older.


Shingles is caused by the chickenpox virus becoming active again. After a dull, aching phase, tiny, painful blisters erupt. Shingles is treated with antiviral drugs. A vaccine is available.

When to Call Your Healthcare Provider

While most skin rashes are not life-threatening, a rash can sometimes mean something more serious is happening in your body.

If you have a rash and notice any of the following symptoms, you should contact your healthcare provider for an evaluation:

  • The rash hurts.
  • The rash comes and goes.
  • The rash is made up of blisters or open sores, or the sores affect the skin around your eyes, mouth, or genitals.
  • The rash prevents you from getting sleep or interferes with your daily activities.

In some cases, a rash can be a sign of a life-threatening condition. Should you notice any of the following, call 911 or go to the emergency room:

  • The rash is all over your body or is spreading rapidly. This could mean you are having an allergic reaction.
  • The rash is painful, oozing pus, swollen, warm to the touch, or there is a red streak coming from the rash. These are signs that the rash is infected.
  • The rash is accompanied by a fever, which could mean you have an infection. It can also be a sign of a disease such as herpes, measles, shingles, or mononucleosis.
  • The rash is accompanied by dizziness, difficulty breathing, vomiting, a stiff neck, or any other unusual or worrisome symptoms.

How Long Should You Have a Rash Before Going to the Doctor?

If your rash is recurring or does not go away within a week of it developing, schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider. You may need a stronger treatment for your rash, or you may have an underlying condition that needs to be diagnosed.


Rashes are irritated skin. They can be caused by many different things. They each have distinguishing features.

  • Impetigo: Bacterial infection. Involves red sores that leak fluid. Fluid forms a honey-colored crust that's easy to recognize.
  • Athlete's foot: Fungal infection. Strikes between the toes and on the soles. Causes a red rash and broken skin that can be itchy or painful.
  • Psoriasis: Autoimmune disease. The immune system attacks skin cells. Cells build up and form plaques with silvery scales.
  • Shingles: Reactivated varicella virus. Involves tiny, painful blisters on one side of the body and sensitivity to touch.

A Word From Verywell

If you develop a rash and don't know what it's from, get medical attention.

The rash itself may not be harmful. But it could be a symptom of a condition that needs to be treated.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can you tell if a rash is serious?

    If the rash is sudden, spreading rapidly, covering your whole body, painful, infected, or blistering, or if you have a fever or any other unusual symptoms, you should call 911 or go to the emergency room.

  • What foods cause itchy skin?

    Itchy skin is a common symptom of food allergy. The most common food allergies are cow's milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, soy, shellfish, and finned fish.

  • Can COVID cause rashes on skin?

    Although infrequent, there have been reports of rashes on the skin due to COVID infection. COVID rashes have been described as itchy, burning, or painful.

12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Ely JW, Seabury Stone M. The generalized rash: part I. Differential diagnosis. Am Fam Physician. 2010;81(6):726-34.

  3. National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine: StatPearls. Impetigo.

  4. Hartman-Adams H, Banvard C, Juckett G. Impetigo: Diagnosis and treatment. Am Fam Physician. 2014;90(4):229-235.

  5. National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine: StatPearls. Tinea pedis.

  6. National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine: StatPearls. Psoriasis.

  7. National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine: StatPearls. Plaque psoriasis.

  8. National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine: StatPearls. Herpes zoster.

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What everyone should know about shingles vaccines.

  10. Kang JH. Febrile illness with skin rashes. Infect Chemother. 2015 Sep;47(3):155-166. doi:10.3947/ic.2015.47.3.155

  11. Turnbull JL, Adams HN, Gorard DA. Review article: The diagnosis and management of food allergy and food intolerances. AP&T. 2015 Jan;41(1):3-25. doi:10.1111/apt.12984

  12. Daneshgaran G, Dubin D, Gould D. Cutaneous manifestations of COVID-19: An evidence-based review. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2020 Aug;21(5):627-639. doi:10.1007/s40257-020-00558-4

By Heather L. Brannon, MD
Heather L. Brannon, MD, is a family practice physician in Mauldin, South Carolina. She has been in practice for over 20 years.