What May Be Causing Those Itchy Bumps Filled With Clear Liquid

And what to do about them

Itchy bumps filled with clear liquid are called blisters or vesicles. They're a feature of many common rashes.

Vesicles form when fluid is trapped under the epidermis (top layer of skin). A rash with multiple vesicles is called a vesicular rash.

Sometimes, vesicles merge into a larger single blister (called a bulla). A rash with multiple blisters (bullae) is called a bullous rash. When they burst, the fluid may crystallize and leave behind a crust.

This article looks at nine common causes of blisters and what to do about them.

To Pop or Not to Pop?

As tempting as it may be, you shouldn't pop a blister. Its purpose is to protect the skin underneath as it heals. Popping it can let in bacteria and lead to an infection.

Chickenpox

A child with chicken pox.

Joanne Green / Getty Images

Chickenpox is an itchy rash. It's caused by the varicella virus. The chickenpox vaccine has made it far less common than it used to be.

The classic chickenpox blister looks like a dewdrop. You can have between 100 and 300 of them during a chickenpox infection. They develop all over the body, particularly on the trunk, face, and scalp. They can also appear on the mucous membranes of the throat, eyes, anus, and genitals.

The rash comes on between 10 and 21 days after you're exposed to the virus. Other symptoms usually start a day or two earlier.

They include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite

Over the next eight to 12 hours, the fluid-filled blisters get cloudier and burst. That leaves a yellowish crust.

New blisters can form where old ones have healed. They may leave a permanent scar (pockmark).

The chickenpox virus spreads easily through coughs, sneezes, or contact with ruptured blisters. Anyone exposed is at risk for shingles later on.

Shingles

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

shingles

CMSP / Gettty Images

Shingles (herpes zoster) is a painful rash. It's caused by a reactivation of the chickenpox virus. Early symptoms are fatigue and burning, itching, or aching of the skin.

After an initial chickenpox infection, the virus embeds itself in nerve cells. Years later, the rash can develop along a dermatome (the nerve's path). Each dermatome provides nerve function to a specific area of skin on one side of your body. So the shingles rash usually appears as a stripe or band across the skin.

Blisters cause persistent and often severe pain when they rupture. They'll heal in seven to 10 days. A rare complication, postherpetic neuralgia, can cause persistent pain that lasts for weeks, months, or even years.

The vesicle fluid can transmit the virus to others who haven't had:

  • Chickenpox
  • Chickenpox vaccine

A person infected by someone who has shingles would develop chickenpox, rather than shingles. This is especially dangerous for young babies or people who have a weak immune system.

Treating Shingles

Antiviral medications can make shingles milder and clear up more quickly.

Rhus Dermatitis (Poison Ivy)

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

Poison ivy rash on arm
Poison ivy rash on arm. JodiJacobson / Getty Images

Rhus dermatitis is caused by contact with an oily chemical called urushiol. It's found in some plants including:

If you're sensitive to urushiol (and most people are), the itchy, blistering rash develops anywhere the oils touch your skin. Fluid from the blisters can't spread the rash to other people. But contact with the oils on your skin or clothing can.

Rhus dermatitis is a form of allergic contact dermatitis. It's treated with topical steroids. Over-the-counter (OTC) calamine lotion can help relieve symptoms.

The rash heals on its own in about three weeks. It rarely scars.

Recap

Many things can cause blisters filled with clear liquid. Chickenpox is caused by the varicella virus. It spreads easily.

Shingles are a reactivation of the same virus. The blisters are extremely painful when they rupture.

Rhus dermatitis is caused by an oil in poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac. It often clears on its own, and you may be given topical steroids to help clear it up.

Genital Herpes

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

Herpes simplex
Herpes simplex on penis. DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Genital herpes is most often caused by the herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2). Symptoms typically start with tingling or burning. Then, herpes blisters develop and erupt into painful ulcers. 

Blisters can be hard to see in the vagina, and sometimes genital herpes can be misdiagnosed as a bladder or yeast infection.

The fluid in herpes vesicles can transmit the virus during sex or other intimate contact.

Antiviral drugs can shorten an outbreak. But nothing can get HSV-2 out of your body completely.

Cold Sores

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Herpes simplex
CDC

Cold sores are also known as fever blisters or oral herpes. They're usually caused by the herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1).

Once you've been exposed to HSV-1, the virus stays in your body forever. It reactivates now and then and causes blisters.

The triggers for a cold sore outbreak include:

  • Chapped lips
  • Stress
  • Fatigue
  • Excessive sun exposure
  • Fever

A cold sore can be painful. It may take up to two weeks to heal.

Antiviral medications can relieve symptoms and shorten outbreaks. Topical medications are also available.

The fluid in herpes blisters can pass the virus to others through kissing, oral sex, or sharing cups, utensils, or personal care items.

Dyshidrotic Eczema

Dyshidrotic eczema
Dyshidrotic eczema.

Getty Images / Iuliia Mikhalitskaia

Dyshidrotic eczema, or pompholyx, is an itchy rash. It mainly develops on the hands and feet. It isn't contagious.

You may be more likely to get it if you have atopic dermatitis. The cause is unknown, and it's believed to be related to abnormal immune function.

The vesicular rash looks almost like tapioca pudding. It can take up to three weeks to heal. It may leave behind red, dry, and cracked scales.

Large, painful blisters can develop. If they're on your feet, it may be hard to walk. The rash is most often treated with topical steroids.

Recap

Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus 2. Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus 1. This virus stays in your system and occasionally reactivates and causes sores.

Dyshidrotic eczema is an itchy rash on the hands and feet. It's treated with topical steroids.

Scabies

Red papules on the skin due to scabies

P. Marazzi / Science Photo Libary / Getty Images

Scabies is a rash caused by tiny mites that burrow into your skin. The red, bumpy rash often has tiny, fluid-filled blisters.

A scabies rash is most often seen on:

  • Wrists
  • Between the fingers
  • Under the arm
  • Around the waistline

You can transmit scabies through skin-to-skin contact and you can catch it from contaminated clothing and bedding. It usually takes more than a quick hug or handshake, though.

Scabies is commonly treated with anti-parasitic lotions. They kill both the mite and its eggs. Oral medications are also available.

Impetigo

Impetigo rash beneath a mans lower lip

Science Photo Library / Getty Images

Impetigo is an infection that affects the upper layers of the skin. It can be caused by Streptococcus or Staphylococcus bacteria.

It commonly occurs on the face or limbs. Sores quickly develop into vesicles. Burst blisters leave behind a honey-colored crust.

A less common form of impetigo causes large blisters known as bullae. Newborns and younger children get them most often.

Impetigo treatment usually involves broad-spectrum antibiotics.

Impetigo can be caused by MRSA. That's a drug-resistant strain of Staphylococcus. It may require a more aggressive approach using multiple antibiotics.

ID Reaction

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Dermatitis Rash

HKPNC / Getty Images

An Id reaction is a secondary eruption related to a distant inflammatory or infectious rash. It is a form of auto-eczematization that develops in response to an infection or inflammation.

Infections linked to Id reaction include:

  • Athlete's foot
  • Ringworm
  • Jock itch

Treating the infection should clear up the rash.

Recap

A scabies rash comes from mites burrowing in your skin. It's treated with anti-parasitic lotions. Impetigo is caused by Streptococcus or Staphylococcus bacteria. Antibiotics may clear it up.

Home Remedies for Itching

Different causes of blisters need different treatments. Meanwhile, you may have an annoying itch to deal with.

Common home remedies include:

  • A fragrance-free, additive-free moisturizer
  • A topical anesthetic that contains pramoxine
  • Topical treatments that contain menthol or calamine
  • Aloe vera gel
  • Coconut oil
  • Cold compresses or ice packs (use for 5-10 minutes at a time)
  • Oatmeal baths

If your itch is severe or doesn't respond to these remedies, talk to a healthcare professional.

Summary

Fluid-filled blisters can come from many causes.

Chickenpox, shingles, genital herpes, and cold sores are caused by viruses. Rhus dermatitis comes from an oil in plants like poison ivy.

Dyshidrotic eczema likely comes from impaired immune function. Scabies is caused by burrowing mites.

Impetigo is caused by bacteria. Id reaction often comes from infections in other areas of the body.

There are home remedies that can help relieve the itch while the underlying cause is treated.

A Word From Verywell

If you have blisters, don't assume they're harmless and will go away on their own. They might, but they might require treatment.

See a healthcare professional so you know for sure what's causing the vesicles. Then you can choose the right treatments to clear up your skin.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes itchy, watery bumps on the skin?

    Itchy watery bumps on the skin can be caused by: 

    • An allergic reaction to drugs, food, or a skin irritant
    • An autoimmune disorder
    • A bacterial, fungal, or viral infection
    • A burn
    • Contact with a chemical irritant
    • Chemotherapy treatment
    • Eczema 
    • Friction ("rug burn")
  • Can an allergic reaction cause small, red, and itchy bumps on the skin?

    Yes, an allergic reaction caused by physical touch (contact dermatitis) can result in small, red, and itchy bumps to appear on the skin. Contact dermatitis can appear anywhere on the body and cause swelling, dry and cracked skin, pain, burning, and oozing. It will often heal on its own after a few weeks as long as the allergen is avoided. If the bumps don't go away or become worse, it may be time to visit a healthcare provider.

  • What causes small, itchy blisters on fingers?

    Small, itchy bumps or blisters on the fingers, hands, and feet may be caused by dyshidrotic dermatitis. This condition can start suddenly with clusters of tapioca-like vesicles. You can treat the affected skin by applying a fragrance-free moisturizer, cream, or lotion. If the blisters don't go away or start to show signs of infection, it may be wise to contact a healthcare provider.

  • Are there other rashes that look like shingles?

    No, other rashes do not usually look like shingles. The shingles rash has a distinct distribution that should make it easy to diagnose. The best way to diagnose and treat shingles is by visiting a healthcare provider who can provide specific treatment.

13 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. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chickenpox (varicella): Signs and Symptoms.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shingles (Herpes Zoster): Transmission.

  4. Cleveland Clinic. Poison Ivy, Poison Oak and Poison Sumac.

  5. Groves MJ. Genital herpes: A review. Am Fam Physician. 2016;93(11):928-34.

  6. Gfeller CF, Wanser R, Mahalingam H, et al. A series of in vitro and human studies of a novel lip cream formulation for protecting against environmental triggers of recurrent herpes labialis. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2019;12:193-208. doi:10.2147/CCID.S179430

  7. Vozianova SV, Dyadyk OO, Boyko VV, Radkevich YS. Genetic-morphological peculiarities of response to standard therapy in patients with dyshidrotic eczema of palms and soles. Wiad Lek. 2018;71(9):1707-1713. [Article in Ukrainian. Abstract referenced.]

  8. Banerji A. Scabies. Paediatr Child Health. 2015;20(7):395-402.

  9. Pereira LB. Impetigo - review. An Bras Dermatol. 2014;89(2):293-9. doi:10.1590/abd1806-4841.20142283

  10. Wenzel J. Cutaneous lupus erythematosus: New insights into pathogenesis and therapeutic strategiesNat Rev Rheumatol. 2019;15(9):519–532. doi:10.1038/s41584-019-0272-0

  11. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to Relieve Itchy Skin.

  12. Mount Sinai Health Library. Vesicles.

  13. National Institutes of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Pompholyx Eczema.

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.