What Causes Skin Redness?

Red skin is a symptom of several conditions

Skin redness, sometimes called erythema or flushing, is a common symptom with many potential causes. Sunburn, exposure to an irritant, and medication use are just a few. Most cases of skin redness are easy to diagnose and treat.

However, skin redness can sometimes be a sign of a health condition like lupus or scarlet fever, or a chronic disorder that could benefit from treatment, such as psoriasis.

This article reviews several possible causes of skin redness and their symptoms. It explains when you should see a healthcare provider and what to do to calm your skin.

Sunburn

Child with sunburn on face and body

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Even if it’s overcast, you can still get a sunburn. Along with red skin, you may have:

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

You should see a doctor if a sunburn has left you with severe blisters on a large amount of your skin. You should also seek medical care if you feel dizzy or disoriented after a sunburn.

Irritant Contact Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis

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Irritant contact dermatitis is a skin reaction that occurs after you’ve come in contact with a substance that bothers your skin.

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 in some jewelry 
  • Sunlight and skin damage from ultraviolet (UV) rays 
  • Sweat gland blockage due to heat 
  • Latex gloves 
  • Topical medications 
  • Increased water exposure 
  • Moisturizers

Symptoms may include:

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

Seek medical care for any rash that won't go away or that keeps coming back after you've treated it.

Allergic Contact Dermatitis

Contact allergic dermatitis of the hands

DermNet New Zealand

You can also have a skin response after you come in contact with something you are allergic to.

If you regularly handle chemicals or metals, you may develop an allergy over time. This condition is called allergic contact dermatitis.

Jewelry workers, for example, may become allergic to nickel. Chemicals in the dyes that hairstylists use can also cause allergic reactions. Redness can be part of your body's immune response.

See a dermatologist if you have skin redness and these symptoms:

  • A rash that appears suddenly
  • A rash that spreads over your whole body
  • A fever
  • Blisters, especially around your eyes, mouth, or genitals
  • Signs of infection, including oozing, swelling, crusting, pain, warmth, or red streaks

Medications

Penicillin-induced rash

DermNet NZ

Herbal supplements, over-the-counter (OTC) medications, and prescription drugs can all cause allergic reactions and other unwanted side effects, including red skin.

Drugs that can trigger red rashes or hives include: 

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

Specific skin-related side effects of some medications may include:

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

Allergic reactions to drugs can range from minor to severe and life-threatening. They typically occur within an hour after taking a drug. Some 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 
  • Skin itching 
  • Itchy, watery eyes
  • Swelling 
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing 
  • Runny nose 
  • Anaphylaxis

Drug reactions can be serious. They can sometimes cause death. Any time you have a rash after you've taken a medication, call your healthcare provider right away.

Seek medical attention immediately if you or your loved one have symptoms of anaphylaxis, including:

  • Difficulty breathing  
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or confusion 
  • Nausea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, or diarrhea 
  • Rapid heartbeat 
  • Loss of consciousness (passing out or fainting)

Eczema

Eczema on neck and chest

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Eczema is also known as atopic dermatitis. It causes dry, sensitive skin with itchy red patches that fade and flare up from time to time.

Eczema can occur at any age. It's common in babies and children, but they can outgrow it in time. 

Symptoms may include:

  • Dry, scaly patches on the skin 
  • Itchiness 
  • Flushed skin 
  • More redness, swelling, and itching after scratching or rubbing 
  • Skin thickening 
  • Reddish (or brownish-gray) scaly patches on the skin
  • Small, fluid-filled bumps

Eczema looks different depending on a person's skin tone. Eczema typically appears red on lighter skin tones, and grey, dark brown, or purple on darker skin tones.

If you think you may have eczema, see a healthcare professional or dermatologist. Allergy testing can show you what triggers to avoid. You may also need prescription medications to calm your immune system and reduce inflammation.

Seborrheic Dermatitis

Treating seborrheic dermatitis cradle cap on infant

 delectus / iStock / Getty Images

Seborrheic dermatitis—better known as dandruff or, in infants, cradle cap—is a common skin condition that affects the top of the head. It can also affect other parts of the body that have sebaceous (oil-producing) glands, such as the face, upper back, and chest.

Anyone can have dandruff, but it’s more common in infants and adults ages 40 to 60. It can clear up and flare up from time to time.

Seborrheic dermatitis is not contagious. It has nothing to do with how clean you are. 

This condition can cause: 

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

Often, a dandruff shampoo with selenium sulfide can help resolve this condition. (If treating a child, speak to their pediatrician first.) See a dermatologist if it doesn't help or if you have symptoms of infection, such as:

  • Pain
  • Redness
  • Pus
  • Crust
  • Severe itch

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 often, you may have rosacea

Potential symptoms include: 

  • Easily flushing or blushing, especially if 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 skin that may burn or sting when you use certain products or when you've been in the sun 
  • Swelling or bumpy skin on the forehead, cheeks, or around the eyes 
  • Thickening skin on nose, cheeks, or forehead 
  • Swollen eyelids
  • Irritated, watery, dry, or bloodshot eyes

See a dermatologist when you first notice symptoms. Early treatment can keep symptoms from becoming severe.

Psoriasis 

Plaque psoriasis

P. MARAZZI / Getty Images

Psoriasis is a chronic skin condition that causes your body to produce skin cells too rapidly. This rapid growth makes red patches flare up now and then.

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

It's important to see a dermatologist if you think you have psoriasis. Once you have the right diagnosis, you can find treatments that resolve or reduce your symptoms. Treatment may need to be adjusted over time.

Psoriasis is both a dermatological and an autoimmune condition.

Autoimmune Conditions

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Systemic lupus erythematosus

DermNet NZ

Autoimmune conditions cause the body to attack itself. These conditions often cause symptoms that affect the whole body, such as fatigue, muscle weakness, and joint pain. Some common conditions also affect the skin, including:

  • Lupus: A chronic disease that can cause red sores or a butterfly-shaped rash on the face.
  • Dermatomyositis: A rare inflammatory disease that triggers a red rash on the face, eyelids, chest, back, and hands.

If you have an autoimmune condition, you will probably need medications to treat the full range of your symptoms. In addition to seeing a rheumatologist, a doctor who specializes in these issues, you may want to include a dermatologist on your treatment team to help you with your skin symptoms.

Folliculitis

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Folliculitis

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Folliculitis is the name for an infection in a hair follicle on your skin. When the hair follicle is infected, the skin around it can redden or darken. It may also swell slightly. Sometimes it looks like white-tipped pimples.

Folliculitis happens when bacteria or fungus get inside your hair follicle. Using a hot tub that isn't clean can cause the problem. So can shaving, plucking hairs, or applying coal tar to your skin.

You should see a dermatologist if folliculitis keeps coming back. You may need antibiotics to clear the infection. And getting early treatment can prevent scarring.

Other Bacterial Infections

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Cellulitis

DermNet NZ

Cellulitis is a common, potentially life-threatening bacterial skin infection. It causes a red, swollen, and tender rash. It happens when a break in your skin allows bacteria to enter your body.

Cellulitis often affects the lower legs, but it can also occur in other places, such as your face or arms.

Cellulitis can cause severe complications if left untreated. Seek medical care right away if you or your loved one have:

  • Red, swollen rash that spreads rapidly 
  • Tender, red skin that's warm to the touch
  • Pitted or blistering skin 
  • Fever and chills

If you notice these symptoms, seek medical care right away. The infection can spread and even cause death if left untreated.

Scarlet fever is another bacterial infection that can cause skin redness. It's caused by Group A Strep bacteria, best known for being associated with strep throat. Not everyone who gets strep throat develops scarlet fever, however.

If you have scarlet fever, a bright red rash appears a day or two after the sore throat. It may start in one spot and spread across your body. People with scarlet fever might also have fever and headaches.

Viral Infections

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Herpesviridae Chickenpox

Smith Collection / Getty Images

Many viruses cause red skin rashes:

  • Chickenpox (varicella-zoster) causes very itchy fluid-filled bumps over your body.
  • Shingles (herpes zoster) causes a very painful, red rash that may tingle, itch, or burn. It may have a stripe-like pattern on the torso or elsewhere on the body and include fluid-filled blisters.
  • Measles causes a flat, blotchy rash over your whole body.
  • Rubella causes a rough or bumpy rash over the whole body.
  • Epstein-Barr virus (mononucleosis) causes a reddish-to-purple rash on the body and sometimes in the mouth.
  • Hand, foot, and mouth disease can cause flat or fluid-filled spots on the soles of feet, palms, mouth, and elsewhere on your body.
  • Fifth's Disease (or slapped cheek disease) leaves red patches across the face and a rash on the body.
  • Sixth's Disease or roseola causes a rash on the torso, arms, and legs, along with breathing symptoms.
  • West Nile, Zika, and Dengue fever, spread by mosquito bites, cause rashes that can be on the face, torso, arms, or legs. With Dengue, the rash may look like white spots surrounded by red blotches.

Some of these viruses are very contagious. Some can be prevented with a vaccine. If you think you may have a viral infection, talk to a healthcare professional. It's especially important if you also have a fever.

Diagnosing Skin Redness

In many cases, your healthcare provider can pinpoint what's causing the redness. Be prepared to talk about when the redness started and how it's changed over time.

Your healthcare provider will need to ask about:

  • Your medical history
  • Symptoms you are experiencing and when they occur
  • Medications you’re taking
  • Your family history
  • Any recent exposure to irritants or allergens

They may be able to diagnose the problem after speaking with you. However, you may need allergy tests, blood tests, or a skin biopsy (a tissue sample is removed and examined under a microscope) to be sure.  

Be sure to ask your healthcare provider if your skin condition is contagious. If it is, you'll need to know how to avoid spreading it to others.

Treatment for Skin Redness

Depending on the cause, self-care may be the best way to deal with red skin.

Try these strategies to calm redness and protect your skin:

  • Remove irritating products from your skincare and makeup regimen.
  • Use gentle cleansers and moisturizers with soothing ingredients like chamomile, aloe, or cucumber. They may reduce inflammation and rebuild your skin’s protective barrier.
  • Avoid over-exfoliating your skin by taking a break from peels and scrubs.
  • Apply sunscreen to avoid sunburn and skin damage.

To ease mild discomfort and itching, try:

  • Using an over-the-counter anti-itch cream with menthol, calamine, aloe vera, or oatmeal
  • Applying a product with 1% hydrocortisone cream for issues like bug bites or poison ivy
  • Taking antihistamines like Allegra or Zyrtec for mild allergic reactions or hives
  • Using a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as ibuprofen, especially if your symptoms are keeping you awake at night
  • Applying a cold compress for quick relief
  • Wearing light, breathable clothes to reduce friction and overheating

If the issue doesn't get better, contact a healthcare provider to rule out deeper causes. You may have an infection or another health condition, in which case you may need:

  • Antibiotics
  • Antimalarial drugs
  • Antihistamines
  • Medications that calm your immune system
  • Prescription ointments or creams
  • Light therapy

You can also speak to your provider about options for further reducing redness for cosmetic reasons if you'd like.

Summary

Redness is a symptom of many skin conditions. It can mean that you've come in contact with something irritating, that you have an infection or allergy, that you're having a drug reaction, or that you have an underlying illness.

To find out exactly what's causing redness, see a healthcare professional. Ignoring rashes isn't a good idea. That's especially true if you're also having symptoms like blisters, fever, swelling, or itching.

Skin redness can be treated with at-home remedies either exclusively or in tandem with medications, depending on the cause. Even when redness is from a health condition that can't be cured, symptoms can usually be managed.

16 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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By Lauren Krouse
Lauren Krouse is a journalist especially interested in covering women’s health, mental health, and social determinants of health. Her work appears in Women's Health, Prevention, and Self, among other publications.