Skin Conditions, Explained
To diagnose skin conditions, doctors typically consider a person’s medical history and physical symptoms.
Your body’s biggest organ, your skin shields you from the elements—but while it’s tough, it’s not impenetrable. Allergens, environmental irritants, infection, hereditary factors, and stress are just a few of the forces that can trigger or exacerbate skin troubles.
The terms "skin condition" and "skin disorder" are used interchangeably to describe various skin problems, 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 (certain foods, animal dander, wool, or soaps, for example) trigger an immune system response, 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.
To diagnose skin conditions, doctors typically consider a person’s medical history and physical symptoms. Assessing the size, shape, location, and color of bumps, blisters, and rashes can help doctors pinpoint the exact cause. Other non-skin symptoms may offer clues as well. Sometimes doctors 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, and as such, changes in color, texture, or appearance may signal trouble.
Red splotches on the skin may be a sign of dermatitis (an itchy rash triggered by an allergen, such as nickel, the metal found in some jewelry). Red blotches on the face may rosacea, a common skin problem that can be mistaken for acne.
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.
Common signs of skin conditions:
- Flaky, scaly skin
- Bumps or growths
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, doctors may prescribe oral or injectable medicines.
Some more stubborn skin conditions may require a multi-pronged approach. For example, someone with psoriasis or severe eczema may be prescribed steroid ointments or creams to reduce inflammation, topical coal tar products for itch relief, and light therapy to clear up rashes.
Skin cancer or warts may require surgery.
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Light therapy
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Most common skin disorders
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 (called blackheads) look black. 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. 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.
Cold sores are tiny, painful, fluid-filled blisters that often appear in clusters on or around the lips. They are a viral infection and contagious. People may experience a tingling sensation in the affected area before a breakout. Cold sores (which are also called fever blisters) are caused by type 1 of the herpes simplex virus. (Type 2 of this virus affects the genital area.) There’s no cure for cold sores, but antiviral medications can speed recovery.
Eczema is a dry, itchy skin condition. The most common type (atopic dermatitis) usually occurs in childhood. Commonly, kids with atopic dermatitis develop a red rash on their face, scalp, hands, or feet. Elbows and knees may be affected. Other types of eczema affect adults and may cause blistering. Eczema may be chronic, but it’s not contagious. 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 are itchy, raised welts that can be red or skin-colored. 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 itch. In severe or chronic cases, patients may be prescribed corticosteroids or stronger drugs.
Some people with lupus have a variety of symptoms, ranging from fatigue to joint pain, while others have only skin symptoms. A butterfly-shaped rash across the face is a classic symptom of lupus. Some people can also have raised, disc-shaped red patches on sun-exposed areas. Lupus is an autoimmune condition, meaning the body attacks its own tissues and organs. It is more common in women than men. There’s no cure for lupus, but treatment can alleviate symptoms and prevent flare-ups.
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. When it affects the scalp (tinea capitis), ringworm can cause scaly, red bald spots. Ringworm of the feet (called athlete’s foot) causes peeling, cracking, and possibly blisters. When ringworm affects the groin, it’s called jock itch. Ringworm is contagious but treatable with antifungal medicines.
Shingles is a painful, blistering rash caused by the varicella zoster virus that wraps like a band across one side of the face or body. It only affects people who have previously had chickenpox. 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.
Nonmelanoma skin cancer frequently affects sun-exposed areas, including the head, face, neck, hands, and arms. There are two types of nonmelanoma skin cancer, including basal cell carcinomas (they may be dome-shaped with visible blood vessels and can look like open sores that won’t heal) and squamous cell carcinomas (they 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. Depending on what type of skin cancer you have and how severe it is, treatment can include surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.
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People with this rare 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. The cause is unknown, but some experts believe it may be an autoimmune disease, and the body’s immune system is attacking pigment-producing cells. Light therapy and topical creams may be used to ease symptoms.
Common warts are bumpy skin growths that usually appear on the hands. Foot warts (plantar warts) on the soles of the feet tend to be hard, and can be painful when you walk on them. Tiny black dots that look like seeds (actually dried blood from tiny blood vessels) may appear on the surface of warts. They are caused by the human papillomavirus and can be contagious. Warts often go away on their own, particularly in kids. A doctor can remove painful or bothersome warts using peeling medicines, acids, or freezing.