What Is Red Skin?

Red skin is a symptom of several conditions

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Red skin, also known as erythema or flushing, is a common symptom with a slew of potential causes from sunburn to a reaction to a new fabric softener. Typically, skin redness doesn’t indicate underlying disease and is easy to diagnose and treat.

Still, it’s understandable if you’re feeling worried about what might be causing red blotches on your child’s skin, a rash on your face, or itchy bumps all over. Sometimes, red skin can be a sign of a severe allergic reaction or a chronic skin condition.

Here, learn what you need to know about red skin, including a breakdown of different conditions and symptoms, how to cope, and when it’s time to see a doctor. 

Red Skin Symptoms 

Although common, red skin can be a distressing symptom. To begin sorting out what might be going on, consider some of the most common reasons for skin redness.

Sunburn 

Child with sunburn on face and body

D-Keine / E+ / Getty Images

Even if it’s overcast, you can still get a sunburn if you spend an extended period of time outdoors without protecting your skin.

Along with red skin, symptoms may include:

  • A surface-level burn on your skin
  • Pain, tenderness, and swelling 
  • Dry, peeling skin 
  • Deeper burns and blisters with increased sun exposure

Contact Dermatitis 

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

Contact dermatitis
Contact dermatitis.

PansLaos / Getty Images 


Contact dermatitis
is a skin reaction that flares up after you’ve come into contact with an irritant or allergen. 

Symptoms at the site of exposure may include:

  • A red rash
  • Red, itchy bumps  
  • Skin blistering 
  • Itching or burning sensations 

Medication Side Effects or a Drug Allergy  

Man itching arm with hives

Chokchai Silarug / Getty Images

Herbal supplements, over-the-counter (OTC) medications, and prescription drugs can all cause unwanted side effects or allergic reactions due to abnormal immune responses. Drug allergies can range from minor to severe and life-threatening. 

Side effects of medication may include:

  • Acne 
  • Red, scaly skin 
  • Dark red or purple rash 
  • Blisters or hives 
  • Pimple-like rash
  • Purple areas on skin 

Allergic reactions to drugs typically occur within an hour after taking a drug. However, certain symptoms—such as a rash—may not appear until hours, days, or weeks later.

Signs of a drug allergy to look out for include: 

  • Red skin rash
  • Hives 
  • Fever 
  • Itching 
  • Itchy, watery eyes
  • Swelling 
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing 
  • Runny nose 
  • Anaphylaxis 

Anaphylaxis is a rare but life-threatening allergic reaction to a drug that causes widespread bodily dysfunction. If you or your loved one have the below symptoms, seek medical attention immediately:

  • Difficulty breathing  
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or confusion 
  • Nausea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, or diarrhea 
  • Rapid heartbeat 
  • Loss of consciousness

Shingles

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

Shingles rash on body

 pinglabel / Getty Images

If you’ve had chickenpox before and you have a particularly painful red rash, you may have a viral infection known as shingles (herpes zoster). While you can have shingles at any age, your risk goes up as you get older. 

Here are the symptoms to look out for: 

  • A very painful red rash that may tingle, itch, or burn  
  • A red rash with a stripe-like pattern (often on the torso but can appear anywhere on the body or face)
  • Fluid-filled blisters
  • Fatigue 
  • Low fever and chills 
  • Headache

Eczema 

Eczema on neck and chest


-aniaostudio- / iStock / Getty Images

Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, causes dry, sensitive skin with itchy red patches that can fade and flare up over time. Eczema can occur at any age, though it’s common in babies and children (some of whom outgrow it over time). 

Symptoms of eczema may include:

  • Dry, scaly skin 
  • Itching 
  • Flushed skin 
  • Reddish to brownish-gray skin patches or rashes which often appear on the hands, feet, neck, chest, inside elbows, behind knees, and, in infants, on the face and scalp
  • Small, fluid-filled bumps that release clear or yellowish liquid  
  • Increased redness, swelling, and itching after scratching or rubbing irritated skin 
  • Skin thickening 
  • In severe cases, broken skin with oozing or weeping sores 
  • Skin infections 

Seborrheic Dermatitis 

Treating seborrheic dermatitis cradle cap on infant

 delectus / iStock / Getty Images

Seborrheic dermatitis, better known as dandruff in people of all ages or “cradle cap” in babies, is a very common skin condition. It primarily affects the top of your head as well as other parts of the body with sebaceous (oil-producing) glands such as the face, upper back, and chest.

While anyone can have seborrheic dermatitis, it’s more common in infants and adults ages 30 to 60 and tends to clear and flare up over time. This condition is not contagious or associated with poor hygiene. 

Seborrheic dermatitis can cause any of the following symptoms: 

  • Red, oily, or swollen skin 
  • White or yellowish scales that form a thick crust 
  • Flakes on the surface of the skin that easily fall off  
  • Fluid-filled blisters 
  • Other changes in skin color 

Rosacea 

Person with rosacea, red skin on face


Lipowski / iStock / Getty Images

Worried about a red rash on your face? If you find yourself blushing increasingly often, you may have rosacea. 

Potential symptoms include: 

  • Easily flushing or blushing, especially when you feel stressed or too warm, eat spicy foods, or drink alcohol  
  • Occasional, chronic, or permanent redness on your forehead, cheeks, nose, and chin 
  • Visible blood vessels on your face 
  • Redness that spreads to your scalp, ears, neck, upper chest, or back 
  • Oily skin with breakouts that resemble acne 
  • Sensitive, easily irritated skin that may burn or sting when exposed to lotion, face wash, or the sun 
  • Swelling or bumpy skin on the forehead, cheeks, or around the eyes 
  • Thickening skin on nose, cheeks, or forehead 
  • Swollen eyelids or irritated, watery, dry, or bloodshot eyes

Psoriasis 

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

Plaque psoriasis

DR P. MARAZZI / Science Photo Library / Getty Images

Psoriasis is a chronic skin condition that causes your body to produce skin cells too rapidly, triggering intermittent red patches of skin. 

Symptoms of psoriasis may include: 

  • Dry, crusty, red blotches on skin, often on the scalp, elbows, or knees 
  • Silvery scales 
  • Fluid-filled lesions 
  • Itchy skin 
  • Dents or pitting on nail bed

Cellulitis

Cellulitis is a common, potentially life-threatening bacterial skin infection that causes a red, swollen, and typically tender rash after a break in your skin allows bacteria to enter your body. Typically, cellulitis affects the lower legs, but it can also occur elsewhere, such as your face or arms.

Cellulitis can cause severe complications if left untreated, so seek medical attention immediately if you or your loved one has the following symptoms:

  • Red, swollen rash that spreads rapidly 
  • Red skin tender and warm to the touch
  • Pitted or blistering skin 
  • Fever and chills

Causes 

The potential causes of red skin can vary vastly and multiple factors might be at play depending on your individual situation. Here are a few common reasons for skin redness to consider. 

Contact With an Irritant 

Think back: Did you recently purchase a new soap, lotion, or laundry detergent? Go on a recent hike and rub up against lots of greenery? Any number of irritants or allergens can cause a flare-up, from a rash on your face to hives down your legs.

Common offenders include: 

  • Skin and hair products such as soaps, shampoos, shaving lotion, cosmetics, and perfumes
  • Bug bites 
  • Plants such as poison ivy, oak, and sumac 
  • Metals like nickel found in some jewelry 
  • Sunlight and skin damage from ultraviolet (UV) rays 
  • Sweat gland blockage due to heat 
  • Latex gloves 
  • Topical medications 
  • Increased water exposure 

Medication 

While any medication can cause side effects or allergic reactions, some drugs are more likely to cause red skin. Generally, drug allergies occur when your immune system mistakes a drug as a harmful intruder and develops an antibody (or specialized proteins) to combat it. 

Drugs that could commonly trigger red rashes or hives include: 

  • Antibiotics like penicillin
  • Pain relievers including aspirin, naproxen sodium (Aleve), and ibuprofen (Advil and Motrin IB) 
  • Medications for epilepsy or autoimmune conditions 
  • Chemotherapy drugs 

Autoimmune Conditions

Red skin might also be a result of an autoimmune condition such as psoriasis. In this case, your body mistakes healthy tissue for a threat such as a virus and in turn shifts into attack mode. 

Underlying Skin Conditions 

Many skin conditions including eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, and rosacea can cause cyclical bouts of red skin, along with other symptoms. While the exact cause of these conditions remains unknown, they likely occur due to a combination of your genetics and environment.

Triggers such as stress, weather changes, and harsh soaps or cosmetics can cause symptoms to emerge or recur. 

Viruses 

A viral invader could also be to blame for your red skin. In particular, shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox (varicella-zoster virus). If you’ve had chickenpox before, you can develop shingles when the virus reactivates after spending years dormant (inactive) in your body. 

Diagnosis

In many cases, your healthcare provider can determine what’s causing your red skin after discussing your symptoms with you and performing a physical exam.

Be prepared to talk about how your symptoms may have emerged or changed over time, your medical history (including medications you’re currently taking), your family history, and any recent exposure to potential irritants or allergens. 

Depending on your individual case, your healthcare provider may be able to give you a diagnosis based on the information you provide and your symptoms. However, you may need additional tests such as allergy tests, blood tests, or a skin biopsy in order to confirm a diagnosis . 

Be sure to ask your doctor whether or not your skin condition is contagious and how to avoid spreading it to others.

Treatment

Depending on what’s at the root of your skin redness, you may be able to alleviate your symptoms with self-care, over-the-counter remedies, or prescription medications. 

Sunburn 

In most cases, you can relieve symptoms of sunburn by taking cool baths and showers, applying a moisturizer that contains soy or aloe vera, and taking a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) like aspirin or ibuprofen to dial down pain, redness, and swelling.

Contact Dermatitis 

A minor case of contact dermatitis can be treated by washing off your skin to get rid of any traces of the irritant or allergen, applying a moisturizer to help your skin heal, and avoiding the trigger from then on. Your doctor may also prescribe topical corticosteroid creams or ointments or, in severe cases, corticosteroid pills or a shot.

Medication Side Effects or Drug Allergy

Generally, you can get rid of a drug rash by discontinuing the medication and replacing it with an alternative with the help of your healthcare provider. For major reactions, you may also need to take corticosteroids or antihistamines.

Shingles 

The sooner you contact a doctor to treat a potential case of shingles, the better, as medicines to shorten your illness and reduce the severity of your symptoms are most effective within three days of the development of your rash. As you recover, pain relievers along with calamine lotion and oatmeal baths may help reduce pain and itching.

Seborrheic Dermatitis 

Often, seborrheic dermatitis can be managed with an over-the-counter dandruff remedy that contains 2% zinc pyrithione, a prescription anti-fungal shampoo, or, in more severe cases, an additional topical corticosteroid or calcineurin inhibitor to be applied temporarily.

For babies with seborrheic dermatitis, gently washing off flakes with mineral oil or petroleum jelly usually does the trick. 

Chronic Skin Conditions 

While there is no cure for eczema, psoriasis, or rosacea, you can manage your symptoms with self-care, lifestyle adjustments to reduce triggers such as stress, medication, and additional therapies as needed. 

When Do You Need a Dermatologist for Treatment?

If you’ve tried self-care measures like over-the-counter creams and lotions but your symptoms are severe, life-disrupting, or continue after two weeks, contact your doctor for help. If you suspect you or a loved one may be having a serious allergic reaction or a rapidly-worsening skin infection, seek medication attention immediately. 

Coping 

While red skin can sometimes indicate a serious problem, usually it’s easy to cope with using home remedies like NSAIDs to dial down swelling and redness, creams and ointments to relieve pain and itchiness, and moisturizers to help your skin heal. 

Cosmetic

Depending on the cause, the appearance of red skin can often be alleviated with a little self-care. Here are a few tips to dial down redness in your face and skin: 

  • Regularly use gentle cleansers and moisturizers that contain soothing ingredients like chamomile, aloe, or cucumber to reduce inflammation and rebuild your skin’s protective barrier (this can be especially helpful if you notice your skin is redder during colder or hotter months) 
  • Avoid over-exfoliating your skin by taking a break from peels and scrubs 
  • Apply sunscreen to avoid sunburn and skin damage

If the issue persists, contact a doctor to rule out deeper causes for red skin and talk about other cosmetic solutions.

Itching and Discomfort

Often, dryness or contact with irritating substances can cause red skin to become itchy and irritated. For mild symptoms, you can self-treat with the following strategies:

  • Simplify your skincare and makeup routine and remove irritating products 
  • Use over-the-counter anti-itch creams and ointments that contain menthol, calamine, aloe vera, or oatmeal 
  • For skin irritants like bug bites or poison ivy, apply or spray on products containing 1% hydrocortisone cream 
  • Take antihistamines like Allegra or Zyrtec for mild allergic reactions or hives 
  • For speedy, temporary relief, press on a cold compress 

If you’re diagnosed with a chronic skin condition such as eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, rosacea, or psoriasis, ask your doctor about changes you can make to ease stress, avoid triggers, and keep your symptoms at bay.

Managing a skin condition can be distressing and frustrating, so don’t hesitate to reach out for additional help from a therapist or online support group as well. 

A Word From Verywell 

Because there are so many potential reasons for red skin, make sure to only opt for home care when you’re sure about what’s causing your symptoms. When in doubt, contact a healthcare provider to figure out the best next steps for you.

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Article Sources
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  1. National Eczema Association. Types of eczema: Seborrheic dermatitis. 2020.

  2. American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology. Skin allergies. 2020.

  3. "Rash Evaluation." MedlinePlus Medical Test. U.S. National Library of Medicine. September 2020.