How to Identify 9 Common Skin Rashes

A rash is a reaction in which the skin develops an abnormal texture and other features, such as pain, itching, and fluid discharge. One can come about in response to an allergy, toxin, infection, or larger systemic disease.

The appearance can range from an almost incidental swelling of tissue to an outbreak of painful eruptive sores. Rashes can sometimes be tough to distinguish—even for a trained eye.

Some rashes quickly resolve on their own, but others can be cause for concern. If you're worried about a rash, seek the advice of a dermatologist. Broadly speaking, a rash can be classified as either infectious and non-infectious, and there are hundreds of different types and thousands of possible causes. 

Here are nine of the most common rashes and how they can be identified.

Hives (Urticaria)

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Urticaria; rash on arm

There are times when an allergy or infection will cause the immune system to release a substance called histamine into the bloodstream. When this happens, tiny blood vessels in the skin will expand and leak fluid into the uppermost layer, called the epidermis. The accumulation of fluid will cause the swelling we recognize as hives (urticaria).

Hives are transient. They typically last for less than 24 hours and often go away within minutes or hours, but may appear on new areas.

Depending on the amount of fluid released, hives may:

  • Look spongy or like bug bites
  • Appear as raised areas of inflammation with no distinct border
  • Whiten (blanch) when you press them
  • Affect large areas of skin
  • Be intensely itchy

Non-itchy hives are more likely due to angioedema, a closely related condition in which the swelling occurs in deeper tissue layers.

Hives can also develop in response to hot or cold temperatures, excessive perspiration, and stress. While hives will usually go away on their own, antihistamines may be used to relieve itching and inflammation.


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Impetigo rash beneath a mans lower lip


Impetigo is a common infection of the skin caused by either a streptococcal or staphylococcal bacteria. Impetigo occurs most commonly on the face or limbs and is characterized by:

  • The eruption of tiny blisters
  • Formation of a honey-colored crust

The bacteria typically enter the body through broken or abraded skin such as a cut, scrape, burn, or insect bite. Children often develop impetigo after a cold when the skin of their noses is raw, providing easy access for bacteria. 

A less common type, called bullous impetigo, leads to the formation of large blisters known as bullae. This form of impetigo is more commonly seen in newborns.

While the honey-color crust is usually the telltale sign of impetigo, a bacterial culture may be needed to differentiate it from other types of rash. While impetigo may cause minor itchiness, it is generally not painful (unlike shingles, scabies, or other types of eruptive lesions).

As a bacterial infection, impetigo is typically treated with antibiotics.


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Herpes Zoster (Shingles)
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Shingles is a painful rash caused by a reactivation of the herpes zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. The lifetime risk of developing shingles can run anywhere from 10 percent to over 20 percent in some high-risk groups, including people with compromised immune systems. 

Shingles typically occur later in life. Signs and symptoms evolve as a case progresses:

  • It often begins with a dull, localized ache and an increased sensitivity to touch.
  • Soon after, a distinctive cluster of tiny blisters will form, often rapidly, many of which will burst and form inflamed, crusted ulcers.

Some well-known indications of shingles include:

  • A rash that appears only on one side of the body only, running along the nerve string known as a dermatome.
  • Pain ranging in severity from a prickly, persistent discomfort to a deep, excruciating pain

If left untreated, shingles can cause long-term and sometimes permanent nerve pain known as postherpetic neuralgia.

It is important to see a doctor as soon as you recognize the characteristic, fluid-filled blisters. Early treatment with antiviral drugs such as Zovirax (acyclovir) can shorten the duration of an outbreak and prevent the spread of the rash to vulnerable parts of the body, including the eyes.

A highly effective shingles vaccine known as Shingrix was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in October 2017. It is meant to replace Zostavax, an earlier generation vaccine, and is recommended for all adults 50 and older.

Athlete's Foot (Tinea Pedis)

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Athlete's foot

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

  • A red rash, primarily between the toes or on the soles of the feet
  • Discomfort ranging from mild itchiness and flaking to painful blisters with fissures (skin breaks)

Athlete's foot is divided into three categories:

  • Chronic interdigital athlete’s foot (between the toes)
  • Chronic scaly athlete’s foot (largely on the soles)
  • Acute vesicular athlete’s foot (causing a blister-like infection)

Athlete's foot is easily spread in moist, unhygienic environments, such as spas and locker room floors, and typically treated with topical antifungals.

Because it is so common, athlete's foot can usually be recognized by appearance alone. However, other conditions, such as plaque psoriasis and pityriasis, can cause similar symptoms and may need to be investigated if the rash does not respond to antifungal treatment.

Ringworm (Tinea Corporis)

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Skin infected with ringworm

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Ringworm (tinea corporis) is a common fungal infection that, despite its name, is in no way related to worms.

Possible characteristics of ringworm include:

  • Round rash with raised, red edge (typical)
  • Appears anywhere on the body, but is mostly seen on arms and legs
  • Can cause flaking and peel
  • Is not inherently painful

A related fungal condition, known as tinea capitis, involves the scalp, head, and face (particularly around hair follicles).

Ringworm is highly contagious and easily spread through skin-to-skin contact with a lesion. It can also be passed through contaminated surfaces or everyday objects such as combs, towels, doorknobs, and bedding. Pets can readily transmit the fungus.

Ringworm is typically diagnosed based on its appearance and confirmed with a microscopic examination of a skin scraping.

It is important to note that other rashes can also present with annular (ring-shaped) lesions, including pityriasis rosea and granuloma annulare or those associated with sarcoidosis and lupus. Laboratory diagnosis is often vital to making the distinction.

Once diagnosed, ringworm can be effectively treated with oral or topical antifungal medications.


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Psoriasis (plaque type)


Psoriasis is an autoimmune skin disorder that can be triggered by stress, medication, infection, skin injury, and environmental triggers like the sun.

For reasons not well understood, the immune system will sometimes attack its own skin cells, causing inflammation and triggering the hyperproduction of cells. The rash is formed when new skin cells are produced faster than the old ones can be shed.

Chronic plaque psoriasis is the most common form of psoriasis, affecting around 5 percent of the population. It can sometimes mimic ringworm and is characterized by:

  • A thick rash that's most commonly on the front of the elbows and knees as well as the scalp
  • Silvery plaques over an inflamed base of skin
  • Scales that can become very loose and bleed when scratched
  • Usually distinct borders

Other types include, but are not limited to, pustular psoriasis (characterized by pus-filled lesions) and guttate psoriasis found in children.

Psoriasis is most often diagnosed by its appearance and occasionally a skin biopsy. Because there are no blood tests that can definitively diagnose the disease, a differential diagnosis may be needed to distinguish it from similar skin rashes, such as seborrheic dermatitis, lichen planus, pityriasis, or squamous cell skin cancer.

Treatment varies by the severity of the outbreak and may include topical creams, immune suppressants, and UV light therapy. Psoriasis can often resolve spontaneously without treatment and recur just as suddenly.

Pityriasis Rosea

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Pityriasis Rosea
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Pityriasis rosea is a common, benign rash that:

  • Often begins as a single large spot ("herald patch") on the chest, abdomen, or back that is followed soon after by other smaller lesions
  • Has an annular, ring-like shape, sometimes mimicking ringworm in the early stages
  • Is typically red, scaly, and sometimes itchy

It is also commonly seen on the upper arm and upper leg, but rarely on the face (except in children). Unlike ringworm, pityriasis can progress over the course of days or weeks into multiple patches. 

Pityriasis rosea is not well understood but is believed to be caused by a virus. Because of this, there are no tests to diagnose the condition other than a physical exam. If the symptoms are severe, tests may be performed to rule out other causes, including guttate psoriasis, lichen planus, and tinea versicolor.

While treatment is typically not indicated for pityriasis rosea, a topical steroid or antihistamine may be used the rash is especially itchy.


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Red papules on the skin due to scabies


Scabies (sarcoptic mange) is a contagious skin condition caused by a tiny mite that burrows its way beneath the skin. Like head lice, it can spread quickly through schools and nursing homes and is easily passed between family members. 

Characteristics of the rash include:

  • Most often develops on the wrists, elbow, buttocks, waist, armpits, penis, and between the fingers
  • Is intensely itchy and often worse at night
  • Is accompanied by "tracks" or lines that may look like hives or bites

Scabies mimics other skin conditions such as hot tub folliculitis, seborrheic dermatitis, and pityriasis rosea. To make a definitive diagnosis, a doctor will need to scrape the affected skin and examine it under a microscope for evidence of infestation.

Treatment involves the use of 5 percent permethrin cream or lotion, often in tandem with oral histamines or topical steroids to treat the rash.

Herpes Simplex

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Herpes Labialis

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Herpes simplex is a viral infection caused by either herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1), the type associated with cold sores, or HSV-2, which causes genital herpes.

Herpes is characterized by:

  • The formation of painful, open ulcers
  • An outbreak that initially presents with tingling and redness
  • The eventual formation of blister-like lesions that merge into an open, weeping sores
  • Pain (sometimes severe) that may be accompanied by fever and swollen lymph glands

Herpes can be transmitted by contact with either a sore or body fluids from an infected individual. Transmission can even occur when there are no visible lesions.

Once infected, you can experience a relapse of symptoms at any time (although the first outbreak tends to be the worst). While cold sores and genital herpes may be diagnosed by appearance alone, it is possible for HSV-2 to cause a cold sore if transmitted through oral sex. The opposite is also true.

Herpes simplex can be differentiated from herpes zoster in that shingles tend to more widespread. Similar ulcers can also develop with ​primary syphilis, chancroid, and chlamydia. If there is any doubt as to the cause of the sore, a simple test called polymerase chain reaction (PCR) can be used to confirm the presence of viral DNA.

Treatment of herpes involves the use of antiviral drugs such as Zovirax (acyclovir) or Valtrex (valacyclovir).


Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is an inflammatory skin condition that can affect people of all ages, but occurs more frequently in children.

The most common symptoms of eczema are:

  • A red, itchy rash
  • Dry, rough, or scaly skin
  • Small, fluid-filled blisters
  • Cracked or broken areas of skin
  • Oozing, weeping, or crusting

Although the exact cause of eczema is unknown, it’s believed to be the result of both genetic and environmental factors. Doctors diagnose it based on a physical exam and whether the symptoms meet specific diagnostic criteria.

There is no cure for eczema, but there are treatments that can help manage it. Mild eczema can often be controlled with emollient-rich moisturizers and over-the-counter hydrocortisone creams. Moderate to severe cases may require prescription drugs.

Eczema can be difficult to manage, so many patients find the need to try different treatment options or even change their treatment regimen over time.

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  1. Ely JW, Seabury stone M. The generalized rash: part I. Differential diagnosis. Am Fam Physician. 2010;81(6):726-34.

Additional Reading
  • Habif, T.; Campbell, J.; Chapman, M. et al. (2018) Skin Disease: Diagnosis and Treatment (3rd Edition). New York, New York: Saunders. ISBN-13:978-032307700.