Treating poison ivy skin rashes and other skin irritations
Skin rashes are surface inflammations that cause a variety of symptoms, including redness, bumps, scaly patches of skin and itching. While they are unsightly and can be irritating, rashes are usually benign and respond well to treatment.
In most cases, your doctor can diagnose the type and cause of a rash with a simple physical examination. It is important not to self-diagnose rashes when you do not definitively know what's caused it, because you can make your rash worse if you treat it incorrectly. Rashes are usually not contagious and won't spread to other parts of the body unless they have a bacterial cause or are the result of an infectious disease, such as chicken pox.
Common Causes of Skin Rashes
Most rashes fall into the category of dermatitis, a medical term that simply means "inflammation of the skin." Dermatitis is caused by contact with irritating substances, and every person's skin sensitivities are unique. However, common skin irritants include various forms of rubber, including elastics and latex; dyes; synthetic or natural fabrics; and laundry detergents, soaps and cosmetic products. A chronic condition called eczema is another cause of skin rashes. Eczema causes scaly and itchy patches of red and/or dry skin that flare up when the individual is exposed to allergens or irritants.
Contact with certain plants can also cause breakouts, with poison ivy skin rashes being the best-known example. However, exposure to poison oak or sumac can cause similar irritations.
Another cause of rashes is known as lichen planus, named not because it is caused by exposure to lichens, but because the purple papules on the skin rash itself look like the surface of a lichen plant. Its cause is not fully understood, and there is no lichen planus cure—doctors have recorded cases where the condition flared up again after years of remission. The condition can also occur orally, and lichen planus in the mouth is characterized by white streaks, vesicles filled with fluid, or red, ulcerous growths.
Aside from any topical or systemic treatments prescribed by your doctor, you can use these general guidelines for self-care of rashes:
- Limit your use of soap on the rash; choose gentler, natural cleansers
- Do not rub the rash; if it gets wet, be sure to pat it dry
- Avoid contact with hot water; warm water is best
- Let the affected skin breathe as much as possible
- Do not apply any lotions or ointments to the rash unless your doctor has directed you to do so
Lichen planus treatment includes corticosteroids and retinoids that reduce inflammation as well as drugs that suppress your immune system, as autoimmunity is thought to be a factor.