Consider this scenario: You just got back from an adventure vacation and are now covered in a bright red rash. Or, maybe you woke up one morning to find itchy patches all over your arms, legs, or back. What gives?
"A rash is any changes in skin texture that is not normal," said Dr. Marie Jhin, a board-certified dermatologist in San Francisco and San Carlos, California. "This could include something small or something that could cover more of your body's surface area."
And you may be more susceptible to developing one in the warmer weather.
"During the summer months, your skin may be more easily irritated or develop a rash in response to a number of different triggers," said Dr. Sarina Elmariah, Ph.D., a dermatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Here are some of the most common types of rashes—and how to heal from them.
Heat Rash (a.k.a. Prickly Heat or Miliaria)
How you get it: Dur: You spent too much time in the heat. With heat rash,
your skin's sweat glands are blocked and the sweat produced can’t reach the surface of the skin to evaporate. That’s a serious bummer because the result can be little red bumps that feel itchy or prickly, says Elmariah. If the rash is really bad, it can blister, too. Blergh.
How to prevent it: The formula is simple: To avoid letting your body heat up, stay chill. Keep to the shade, wear loose, light clothing (think: linen), seek a breeze, and use a spray bottle of cool water on your skin when you’re in the sun, Elmariah said.
How to treat it: Heat rash usually fades on its own when your skin cools the heck down. Pro tip: Sitting in front of the AC or a fan can help, says Jhin. If the bumps are super uncomfortable, try a cortisone cream, which can soothe your skin, Elmariah said. A light moisturizer after a cool shower can also ease the pain.
How you get it: The current thinking is that eczema is caused by a mix of genetics, an abnormally functioning immune system, your environment (like a product that didn’t agree with your skin), or defects in the skin barrier that allow moisture out and germs in, explains Jhin. With an outbreak, skin can be itchy, dry, flaky, and sometimes a bumpy rash can pop up anywhere on the body, Elmariah said.
How to prevent it: Avoid your triggers. While these don’t cause eczema, they can exacerbate the problem at hand. So think back to anything that could have set off the discomfort. Common ones include itchy clothing, sweat, heat, irritating skin products or soaps, and stress, Jhin said.
How to treat it: Lotion up, says Jhin. Corticosteroid creams can help control the inflammatory component, too, she says. Otherwise, stick with warm to cool (not hot!) showers and mild soaps. If your symptoms are severe (and nothing at home seems to help), your dermatologist can prescribe a topical steroid that may be more effective, Elmariah said.
How you get it: This itchy rash comes from an oily resin called urushiol, says Jhin. “It's found in the leaves, stems, and roots of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac,” she says. And contrary to what you may think, you don’t have to touch it directly to suffer the consequences. The three forms of transmission: direct contact with the plant, touching someone or something (your friend, your dog, your gardening tool) that touched it, or being around the plant if it’s being burnt (particles of urushiol can penetrate your skin, eyes, nose, throat, or respiratory system), Jhin said. If you’re affected, you’ll notice an aggressive reaction that’s a mix of redness, blistering, and painful itchiness, Elmariah said. Yay, nature.
How to prevent it: Become a nature nerd and learn what these plants actually looks like so that you can avoid them (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has you covered). Then, when you’re outdoors or hiking in an area that may be home to the plant, keep yourself (and your pets) on the pathways, and wear long sleeves, socks, boots, and maybe even gloves, suggests Jhin. Thicker materials like denim and canvas are better for protection than thinner materials, too, Elmariah added.
How to treat it: Cool compresses can help with the blistering, and OTC creams such as calamine lotion or hydrocortisone offer relief from the itching, Jhin said.
“The rash typically goes away on its own in two to three weeks,” she said.
The exceptions: If your rash is all over your body or is filled with blisters, your doctor may prescribe an oral corticosteroid, such as prednisone, she says. There’s also a chance of bacterial infection, in which case you may need a prescription for an antibiotic. So if you haven’t noticed improvements in a week to 10 days, call your doctor, Elmariah said.
How you get it: Blame your childhood.
“Shingles is caused by reactivation of the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox,” Jhin said.
If you’ve had chicken pox or the chicken pox vaccine, it’s possible to develop shingles at some point down the line. Sigh. What to expect: a red, bumpy, itchy, and painful rash, a fever, or blisters, Elmariah said.
How to keep it from happening: It’s vital to stay healthy—stress and poor lifestyle choices can be triggers to reactivation, Elmariah said. There is a vaccine, but it’s only available for adults over age 60.
How to treat it: Your doc may put you on an antiviral medication to work against the varicella zoster virus, Jhin said.
“These medications help shorten the course of the illness and decrease the severity of the illness,” she said.
If you think you have shingles, make sure you see your doc, stat. Meds are most effective when started within 72 hours of the first appearance of the rash, Jhin said. And from a public health standpoint, shingles is contagious (just like chicken pox), so you want to know if you have it so that you don’t pass it on to anyone else.
How you get it: Overexposure to UV radiation from the sun. Think of sunburn like a typical burn except the heat source is the sun’s rays, Jhin said.
How to prevent it: Skip the pool when the sun's rays are strongest, suggested Jhin. (That’s between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m, ladies.) Can’t stay inside? Befriend shady spots and apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30+ to your skin 20 to 30 minutes before you go outside, says Elmariah. The fine print: Re-apply every two hours (or after a sweat sesh or a dip). If you’re very fair, consider UPF clothing (there are some cute options out there!), which can block dangerous rays.
How to treat it: Since the sun can suck moisture from your body, stay hydrated to quench your skin’s thirst. You can also soak the burn with cool compresses, Jhin said. Burnt to a crisp?
“OTC creams such as aloe or hydrocortisone that are refrigerated will relieve the pain,” she said.
And anti-inflammatories like Advil can target inflammation caused by the burn. If you develop a fever, chills, or severe pain or blisters, check in with your physician just to be safe.