Causes and Treatments for Skin Inflammation

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Skin inflammation is a sign of an immune response in the body. Symptoms can include redness, heat, itching, sensitivity, and swelling. The cause or trigger of skin inflammation may be acute, such as a skin infection, or chronic, such as an autoimmune condition like psoriasis. Most cases of skin inflammation are curable, and the treatment depends on what is causing the inflammation.

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Infection

Skin infections occur when bacteria or other foreign substances enter the skin through a cut or wound. Skin infections tend to be more common in those with compromised immune systems. Other risk factors include diabetes, poor circulation, old age, and obesity. While some infections affect a small patch of skin, others can spread deeper into the skin layers and beyond. 

Bacterial skin infections are caused by bacteria entering the skin, and include cellulitis, impetigo, and staphylococcal infections. Viral infections are caused by viruses; examples include shingles and warts. Fungal infections are caused by fungus entering the skin, and include athlete’s foot and yeast infections. Finally, parasitic skin infections are caused by parasites like lice and scabies. 

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of skin infections may develop gradually over time or happen quickly. A bacterial infection can feel like it came out of nowhere. Symptoms include redness, pain, and swelling. You may also notice your skin feels taut and warm to the touch. It’s important to see your doctor as soon as these symptoms develop since cellulitis can spread to the blood and lymph nodes when left untreated. 

A viral infection causing warts will appear as small, flesh-colored bumps on the skin. Fungal skin infections are usually itchy and may cause a burning sensation. Parasitic infections are also quite itchy, and can lead to redness and irritation from scratching. 

Treatment

Treatment for a skin infection usually means a trip to the primary care doctor. Your doctor will take a history and ask about how long the symptoms have been present. They may need to obtain a skin culture to test for the type of bacteria. The treatment will depend on what is causing the infection and how severe it is.

Bacterial infections usually require antibiotics; severe cases may warrant a hospital stay with IV antibiotics. If the infection has caused an abscess, your doctor may need to drain it. Viral infections can be treated with topical medications while addressing the virus itself. Fungal infections will usually clear up after applying an antifungal cream or ointment. Finally, parasitic infections need to be removed with a skin treatment, and in the case of lice, being combed out of the hair and skin. Good hygiene and cleaning with soap and water daily can help to prevent many skin infections. 

Immune Dysfunction

Some cases of skin inflammation are caused by an autoimmune disease, which occurs when the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells. Inflammation of the skin may be the first sign that something is wrong. Immune conditions that have skin effects include celiac disease, psoriasis, and lupus. 

Signs and Symptoms

Immune system disorders may present as rashes, blisters, and redness. An intolerance to gluten can cause itchy, red bumps on the skin each time you eat gluten. This rash is sometimes the first sign that your body is sensitive to gluten and may have celiac disease. 

Psoriasis causes thick, red, scaly patches of skin. It’s commonly found on dry areas like the elbows and knees; it may also present on the trunk, buttocks, face, and scalp. Psoriasis is known for causing severe itching. It is a result of the immune system going into overdrive and speeding up skin cell growth. Rather than shedding off, old skin cells accumulate on the skin, creating thick plaques. 

About 66% of people with lupus experience skin symptoms, which can include rashes and sores on areas that are exposed to sunlight. A butterfly rash is a common sign of lupus and presents as red, irritated skin over the face in the shape of a butterfly. 

Treatment

Unfortunately, autoimmune diseases cannot be cured, but the skin symptoms can often be managed. The itchy red blisters caused by celiac disease can be prevented by removing gluten from your diet. Your doctor may also prescribe a medication to help with acute symptoms. 

Mild cases of psoriasis can usually be treated with topical creams or ointments. If your symptoms are spread over the entire body or if you have joint pain along with skin irritation, you may require more aggressive treatment. Treatment options include light therapy, methotrexate, retinoids, cyclosporine, and immune therapies. Your treatment will depend on how severe your symptoms are. 

Skin conditions caused by lupus are usually treated with topical medications. A steroid cream or gel can be helpful in reducing inflammation and redness. Immunomodulators can help to decrease the body’s immune response in the skin. The medication thalidomide may be considered if other treatments have been unsuccessful. 

Allergies

A skin allergic reaction can occur because of something you ate or drank and touched. Two of the most common skin allergic reactions are eczema and hives. Depending on how sensitive your skin is, you could experience an allergic reaction from household items like laundry detergent or shampoo, as well as plants, latex, and certain metals. 

Signs and Symptoms

Signs of an allergic reaction on the skin include redness, bumps, itching, and a rash. 

Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, causes dry, red, itchy skin. This type of reaction is fairly common, and affects 10% to 20% of children and 1% to 3% of adults. Those with a family history of allergies may be at higher risk for developing eczema. If the rash leads to an infection, you may notice small, fluid-filled pustules. 

Hives look like red bumps or welts over the skin. It is usually caused by direct contact with an allergen or infection. Rarely, hives can last for weeks to months; this is known as chronic hives. 

Contact dermatitis results from touching an allergen like a plant or latex. The reaction usually involves red, itchy bumps over the affected area. 

Treatment

The best way to treat chronic skin allergies is to see an allergist. Eczema is often treated with quality moisturizers and topical steroids if needed. 

If you believe you touched an allergen that is causing contact dermatitis, wash the area well with water and gentle soap. Apply a moisturizer to help with the itching and avoid scratching. If that doesn’t help, your doctor may prescribe a steroid to help with the inflammation or an antihistamine to decrease the allergic response and stop the itching. It’s also best to stay out of the sun until the reaction clears up because UV rays could further irritate your skin.

Photosensitivity

Photosensitivity, also known as sun allergy, is an immune system response to the sun. If you are photosensitive, it means that your body views the normal changes in your skin from the sun as a foreign invader and sends an immune response to fight it. Photosensitivity can be caused by certain medications, skincare products and some immune disorders. Experiencing photosensitivity over time can put you at higher risk for UV damage from the sun and skin cancer. 

Related: Photosensitivity Reaction to Medications

Signs and Symptoms

Photosensitivity can cause a red, itchy rash; you could also experience blisters and oozing lesions. The reaction can occur on any skin exposed to UV rays from the sun or a tanning bed. 

Treatment

The treatment for mild photosensitivity is the same as that for sunburn. Take a break from the sun, get plenty of fluids, and apply a gentle moisturizer. Severe cases can cause flu-like symptoms and even weakness. See a doctor right away if you develop any of these symptoms. 

To help prevent photosensitivity, review all of your medications and beauty products. If any cause photosensitivity, avoid time in the sun after using them. Always practice sun safety with quality sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, and light clothing. Avoid tanning beds as well. 

Heat Rash

Heat rash is common in children, and is caused by clogged sweat glands. When our bodies can’t release heat through sweating, we overheat and a heat rash can form. This can happen after being out in the sun, as well as from ointment or skin products that block the sweat glands. Intense exercise can also be a contributing factor. 

Signs and Symptoms

Heat rash usually appears as a fine pink rash with tiny bumps. You may also notice a pins and needles feeling over the skin. Heat rash usually appears on the neck, chest, and upper back. 

Treatment

A mild heat rash can be treated at home. Start to cool the skin by applying a cool washcloth. If the rash is all over the body, a quick cool bath may help too. Just don’t let yourself get too cold in there. If the rash is itchy, over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream may provide some relief. If the rash does not resolve after two to three days or starts to worsen and look infected, see your doctor. 

When spending time outdoors, make sure to take breaks inside with air conditioning or a fan. Opt for breathable, cotton fabrics to allow for sweating. 

Inflammatory Skin Disorders in Children

If you are a parent, you have most likely logged some time in the pediatrician's waiting room because of your child’s mysterious rash. Skin reactions are common in children, and some are more likely to occur than others. Common inflammatory skin reactions in children are diaper rash, cradle cap, eczema, and viral reactions. 

Diaper rash looks like a bright red rash caused by moisture being trapped in the diaper. It is usually caused by the bacteria that grow in the moisture, but could also be caused by a fungal infection like Candida. In this case, your child will require an antifungal cream to clear it up. Keeping your child’s skin clean with gentle soap and water can help to prevent diaper rash; frequent diaper changes can also help.

Cradle cap is common in infants, and looks like a scaly rash that flakes off throughout the day. The flakes are usually red or yellow in color, and don’t bother your baby. Cradle cap usually resolves on its own by the time your child is 6 months old. 

Eczema is common in children, and often resolves before adulthood. Children with asthma are more at risk of developing eczema. Your child may develop skin inflammation with a virus, and the rash will resolve as the virus does. 

Sun Damage

Even short bouts of sun exposure can lead to sun damage over time. The sun causes changes in your skin that produce dry skin, sunburn, and actinic keratosis. 

Signs and Symptoms

Most of us have experienced a sunburn. A mild sunburn looks like red, inflamed skin. A more severe burn can produce fluid-filled blisters and peeling. Actinic keratosis looks like a rough, scaly patch of skin. It usually occurs on an area of the body that has received frequent exposure to UV rays from the sun or a tanning bed. 

Treatment

Most sunburns can be treated at home, much the same as photosensitivity or heat rash. Getting out of the sun and applying a cool washcloth can provide relief. If it’s uncomfortable, taking over-the-counter pain medications like Ibuprofen may help too. Be sure to protect the area from further sun exposure and drink plenty of water. 

Actinic keratosis is more serious, and needs to be evaluated by a dermatologist. These patches of skin are at higher risk of developing into skin cancer, so it’s important that both you and your doctor keep a close eye on them. 

The best treatment for sun damage is to prevent it. Protect your skin with sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat and long clothing. When you’re outside, take breaks in the shade or indoors. 

Can Vitamin C Protect Against Sun Damage?

You may know it for its cold-fighting abilities, but vitamin C has been making its way into skincare products for its brightening and protective effects. Studies have shown that using sunscreen with vitamin C is more effective at reducing signs of aging than with sunscreen alone. Signs of aging like wrinkles and age spots are caused by oxidative stress. Vitamin C has powerful antioxidant properties that fight oxidative stress and protect the skin from the sun. 

If you’re interested in trying vitamin C for your skin, look for a product that has as few ingredients as possible. Chemical additives can lessen the vitamin’s effects. Apply it in the morning with your daily sunscreen and again at night. Vitamin C is very acidic and can sometimes be irritating to those with sensitive skin. It’s always best to first perform a patch test on a small area of skin and observe for 24 to 48 hours. 

A Word From Verywell 

Skin inflammation is often uncomfortable and may be a sign of a larger problem in the body. While many cases can be successfully treated at home, others require a diagnosis from a doctor. If your new skin symptoms seemed to have come on quickly with no known cause, see your doctor as this could be a sign of an infection that needs to be treated before it spreads. Inflammation that is very itchy or painful should be seen by a doctor as well. It’s helpful to remember that while not every cause of skin inflammation can be cured, most can be managed with the right treatment. 

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Article Sources
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  1. MedlinePlus. Skin Infections. Updated 2021.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Skin Infections. Updated May 22, 2020.

  3. University of Utah Health. Autoimmune Skin Disease. Updated 2021.

  4. Celiac Disease Foundation. Dermatitis Herpetiformis. Updated 2020.

  5. American Academy of Dermatology Association. What's the difference between eczema and psoriasis?

  6. Lupus Foundation of America. How Lupus Affects The Skin. Updated 2021.

  7. Cleveland Clinic. Psoriasis Management and Treatment. Updated October 17, 2020.

  8. American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Skin Allergy. Updated 2014.

  9. Skin Cancer Foundation. Photosensitivity and Your Skin. Updated June 2019.

  10. Seattle Children’s Hospital. Heat Rash. Updated August 14, 2020.

  11. Merck Manuals. Rashes in Children. Updated June 2020.

  12. Harvard Health Publishing. Sun-Damaged Skin. Updated February 2020.

  13. Baylor College of Medicine. Benefits of adding vitamin C to your skin care routine. Updated April 3, 2019.

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