Rashes—areas of bumpy, irritated, or swollen skin—are incredibly common and can be extremely uncomfortable. You’ve probably had one at some point in your life, whether you’ve stepped in poison ivy or had a reaction to a new body wash.
“Rashes are such a broad category, and can range from something that resolves after a couple of hours to having a cause that can be extremely dangerous, and everything in between,” says Mass General Brigham emergency medicine doctor Joseph W. Kopp, MD. In this article, learn more about the different types of rashes and when you should seek medical attention.
If you or a family member has a new rash, call your primary care provider (PCP). Your doctor's office can recommend next steps and assist with any urgent issues.
“It’s always a good idea to contact your PCP first. They know you the best, they know your medical and family history, and they can tease out some of those subtle details,” explains Dr. Kopp.
It’s especially important to call your PCP if you have any of these signs or symptoms, which may indicate a more serious medical problem:
If you’re having trouble breathing, or you’ve had a previous episode of a serious allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis, call 911 or go to the emergency room.
If you have a rash that’s not a medical emergency, many Mass General Brigham primary care practices for adults and children offer same-day, in-person, and virtual visits. If you don’t have a PCP or no appointments are available, you can go to urgent care.
During an in-person visit for a rash, health care providers examine your skin carefully, touching the surface of the rash. They take vital signs, like your temperature, and may order blood work. Your provider will ask questions about your lifestyle, diet, and things you may have come in contact with that may be causing the rash.
Dr. Kopp recommends that patients take photos to keep a visual record of their rash. “If you’re being seen after you’ve had the rash for a couple of days, it can be really helpful to have pictures to show how the rash might have changed,” he says. Seeing how your rash has evolved over time will help your health care provider diagnose and treat it. When it comes to diagnosing and treating rashes, it’s important that patients can identify anything new or unusual when it comes to their skin.
“For people with darker skin, it can be much more difficult to see rashes in detail,” Dr. Kopp advises. “That’s when the patient’s input will be very important.”
“We teach our residents and our med students to pay more attention and ask the detailed questions so that we’re not missing any of those dangerous rashes in our patients with darker skin tones,” says Dr. Kopp. This approach to medical education is a one way that Mass General Brigham is committed to making clinical care more equitable.
For most rashes, seeing a health care provider in person is best so they can examine and touch the rash. “There are important medical differences between a rash that’s flat, that you can’t feel, versus a rash that has bumps on the surface or is textured, which can lead you in a different direction in terms of the cause,” says Dr. Kopp.
For mild rashes, Mass General Brigham Virtual Urgent Care is also an option for care. “It will be a more limited exam of the skin using a camera. We won’t be able to examine any sensitive areas, like the groin. But we can do an initial evaluation and recommend if patients need to get any additional testing or should be seen in person,” Dr. Kopp says.
Virtual Urgent Care is open to all patients ages 3 and up, even if they haven’t seen a Mass General Brigham provider before. Patients may use both on-demand and scheduled appointments. Patients who are new to Mass General Brigham may access on-demand care without an appointment. Existing patients may access the Virtual Urgent Care On Demand option or schedule a visit through the Patient Gateway platform. This integration ensures continuity of care with your existing care team. Learn more about Virtual Urgent Care options.
Rashes have a wide range of causes, including: