Skin Conditions, Explained

To diagnose skin conditions, healthcare providers typically consider a person's medical history and physical symptoms.

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Your skin, your body's biggest organ, shields you from the elements—but while it's tough, it's not impenetrable. Allergens, environmental irritants, certain diseases, and hereditary factors are just a few of the forces that can trigger or worsen skin troubles, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS).

The term "skin condition" is used to describe various skin issues, from small red bumps on the skin to widespread rashes. Some skin conditions can be unsightly but harmless, while others may be contagious. Many skin conditions are also itchy or painful.

Allergic skin conditions occur when allergens (such as certain foods, animal dander, wool, or soaps) trigger an immune system response with symptoms such as redness and itching.

Viruses, fungi, bacteria, or parasites can also cause skin issues to develop. Some skin problems have a genetic component. For example, eczema, which causes weeping, blister-like rashes, is more common in allergy-prone families, according to the National Library of Medicine's resource MedlinePlus.

To diagnose skin conditions, healthcare providers typically consider a person's medical history and physical symptoms. Assessing the size, shape, location, and color of bumps, blisters, and rashes can help healthcare providers pinpoint the exact cause.

Other non-skin symptoms may offer clues as well. Sometimes healthcare providers must remove a growth or take a skin sample for examination under a microscope.

Symptoms of Skin Conditions

Your skin can be a reflection of your overall health, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD), and as such, changes in color, texture, or appearance may signal an issue.

Inflammation of the skin is a common symptom of skin disorders, such as psoriasis and eczema.

Red splotches on the skin may be a sign of contact dermatitis, an itchy rash often triggered by an allergen—such as nickel, the metal found in some jewelry, per the AAD. Red blotches on the face may indicate rosacea, a common skin condition that can be mistaken for acne since it may cause acne-like breakouts, per the AAD.

Tiny red dots on the skin, called petechiae, occur when the smallest blood vessels in the body, called capillaries, bleed into the skin. Petechiae can be a sign of certain infections, medical conditions, or physical trauma.

Small red spots on the face that turn into skin sores that ooze and crust are a symptom of impetigo, a bacterial skin infection that usually affects children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Common signs of skin conditions:

Treatment for Skin Disorders

Many options are available for treating skin disorders. The choice depends on the type of skin condition you have, its symptoms, and the severity of these symptoms.

Ointments, creams, sprays, gels, and other treatments applied directly to the skin are commonly recommended. In some cases, healthcare providers may prescribe oral or injectable medicines.

Some more stubborn skin conditions may require a multi-pronged approach. For example, someone with psoriasis may be prescribed steroid ointments or creams to reduce inflammation, over-the-counter topicals such as aloe vera for itch relief, and light therapy to help clear up rashes, according to the National Psoriasis Association.

Surgery may be required for skin cancer, and surgical removal may also be recommended in some cases of benign growths (noncancerous) such as warts, per the AAD.

Common skin condition treatments:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Antivirals
  • Antifungals
  • Antihistamines
  • Corticosteroids
  • Light therapy
  • Surgery

Most Common Skin Conditions

Acne

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Acne occurs when oil and dead skin cells clog the pores. Pimples under the skin's surface that erupt with a white center are called whiteheads, while pimples exposed to air are called blackheads and look black, per NIAMS. Other skin blemishes, including pink bumps; red, pus-filled pimples; nodules; or cysts, may form.

Acne usually appears on the face, back, neck, chest, and shoulders. Teens are more prone to getting acne, according to NIAMS. Bacteria (P. acnes) and inflammation can play a role in determining when pimples crop up, as can changes in hormones (they trigger excess oil production, resulting in clogged pores).

Topical treatments and other medicines can help unclog pores and prevent new breakouts, per the AAD.

Cold Sore

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Cold sores, or fever blisters, are tiny, painful, fluid-filled blisters that often appear in clusters on or around the lips. They are caused by a viral infection and are contagious, according to the CDC. People may experience a tingling sensation in the affected area before a breakout.

Cold sores are caused by type 1 of the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1), also called oral herpes, according to the CDC. (Type 2 of this virus affects the genital area, but HSV-1 can also spread from mouth to genitals, per the CDC). There's no cure for cold sores, but antiviral medications can speed recovery.

Eczema

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Eczema is a dry, itchy skin condition. Atopic dermatitis, the most common type, is due to an overactive immune system and usually occurs in childhood, according to the National Eczema Association. Commonly, kids with eczema develop a red rash on their face, scalp, hands, or feet. Elbows and knees may be affected.

Eczema can also affect adults and certain types may cause blistering. Eczema may be chronic, but it's not contagious, per the National Eczema Association. It tends to be more common in families with asthma and allergy. Treatment includes medicines to relieve itch and inflammation and prevent flare-ups.

Hives

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Hives, also called urticaria, are itchy, raised welts that can be red or skin-colored. About 20% of people experience hives at some point in their lives, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAAI).

Many cases occur due to an allergic reaction. Possible triggers include foods, insect bites, medications, and latex exposure. Hives are usually temporary, but some people can develop chronic hives. Antihistamines are often recommended to block or reduce the body's allergic response and ease itching, per the ACAAI.

In severe or chronic cases, patients may be temporarily prescribed corticosteroids to address the inflammation and bring relief, according to UpToDate.

Lupus

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Lupus is an autoimmune condition, meaning the body attacks its own tissues and organs. It can affect many parts of the body, so people with lupus can have a variety of different symptoms, according to the Lupus Foundation of America.

Symptoms can range from fatigue to joint pain to skin symptoms. A butterfly-shaped rash across the cheeks and nose is a classic symptom of lupus, per the Lupus Foundation of America. Some people can also have raised, disc-shaped red patches on sun-exposed areas.

It is more common in women than men, according to the CDC. There's no cure for lupus, but treatment can help manage symptoms and help prevent flare-ups.

Ringworm

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Ringworm is a skin infection caused by a fungus that can be itchy. On many areas of the skin, it appears as a round patch with a clear center.

Ringworm of the scalp, which is called tinea capitis, can cause scaly, red bald spots. Ringworm of the feet, known as athlete's foot, causes peeling, cracking, and possibly blisters, per the AAD. When ringworm affects the groin, it's called jock itch. Ringworm is contagious but treatable with antifungal medicines, per the AAD.

Shingles

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Shingles is a painful, blistering rash caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. It wraps like a band across one side of the face or body and only affects people who have previously had chickenpox, according to the CDC.

The first signs of shingles include skin sensitivity, itching, tingling, or pain. Days later, a rash of tiny fluid-filled blisters develops. Shingles isn't passed from person to person, but people with shingles can give other people (usually children) chickenpox.

Shingles is treated with antiviral medicines, per the CDC, and are most effective when started as soon as a rash develops.

Skin Cancer

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Nonmelanoma skin cancer frequently affects sun-exposed areas, including the head, face, neck, hands, and arms, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. There are two types of nonmelanoma skin cancer: basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas.

Basal cell carcinomas may be dome-shaped with visible blood vessels and can look like open sores that won't heal. Squamous cell carcinomas may form a crusty lump on the skin or rough, scaly patches that sometimes bleed.

Melanoma (above), the most dangerous type of skin cancer, may cause dark spots, changes in moles, or a bruise that doesn't heal, according to the AAD. Depending on what type of skin cancer you have and how severe it is, treatment can include surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.

Vitiligo

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People with this skin disorder develop white or lighter patches of skin, usually on both sides of the body. There are different types of vitiligo. Some people have localized vitiligo, in which only a few white spots appear, while others can have it on larger swaths of skin, per the AAD.

The cause of vitiligo is not fully understood, but research suggests it is an autoimmune disease, and the body's immune system is attacking pigment-producing cells, according to NIAMS. Light therapy and topical creams may be used to ease symptoms.

Warts

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Common warts are bumpy skin growths that usually appear on the hands. Foot warts on the soles of the feet, known as plantar warts, tend to be hard and can be painful when you walk on them.

Warts are caused by human papillomaviruses and can be contagious, per the AAD. Tiny black dots that look like seeds (actually dried blood from tiny blood vessels) may appear on the surface of warts.

Warts often go away on their own, particularly in kids, per the AAD. A healthcare provider can remove painful or bothersome warts using methods such as peeling medicines, acids, or freezing, per the AAD.

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