Treatment for Rashes

Treatment for skin rashes varies according to the type of rash and its cause. In most cases, rashes caused by viruses resolve on their own over the course of days or weeks and do not require treatment, except to reduce itching.

Anti-itching lotions (e.g., Calamine), oatmeal baths, and aloe vera gel may provide relief. To reduce the risk for scarring and secondary infections from scratching, fingernails should be kept short and clean, especially in young children.

Mild rashes that worsen when the air is cold and dry (xerosis) can be treated using moisturizer during the winter months. Topical (applied to the skin) creams and ointments, including over-the-counter and prescription-strength corticosteroids (e.g., hydrocortisone) and nonsteroidal medications, such as tacrolimus (Protopic) and pimecrolimus (Elidel) may also be used. Long-term use of corticosteroids may cause thinning of the skin and infections.

Skin infections (e.g., bacterial or fungal) may be treated using antibiotics, which can be applied to the skin (creams, ointments) or taken orally (by mouth), or prescription antifungal creams. Antihistamines reduce itching and may cause drowsiness, providing more restful sleep when taken at bedtime.

Phototherapy involves using ultraviolet A and/or B light waves to treat mild to moderate skin rashes (e.g., psoriasis) in adults and children over the age of 12. In some cases, a drug called psoralen is used in combination with phototherapy. Patients who are receiving phototherapy are monitored carefully during treatment. Long-term side effects include premature aging of the skin and skin cancer.

When topical treatments are ineffective, physicians may prescribe systemic corticosteroids (e.g., prednisone), which are taken orally or injected into muscle instead of being applied to the skin. Corticosteroids should not be discontinued suddenly and the dosage is tapered off gradually.

They are used only for short periods of time because long-term use can cause serious side effects, including the following:

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Increased blood sugar levels
  • Infections
  • Skin damage
  • Thinning or weakening bones

Immunosuppressive drugs (e.g., Cyclosporine) may be used in adults to treat severe skin rashes that do not respond to other treatments. Side effects include the following:

  • Headaches
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Infections
  • Kidney problems
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Numbness and tingling

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 01 Jan 2007

Last Modified: 02 Oct 2015