Viral Exanthem Rash

Overview

What is a viral exanthem rash?

Exanthem is a medical term that describes a widespread rash. A viral exanthem rash accompanies a viral infection. It causes spots, bumps or blotches on your skin. You also might experience additional viral symptoms such as fever, fatigue and body aches.

What is the difference between a viral and bacterial exanthem rash?

An exanthem also can accompany a bacterial infection, or it may be a reaction to a medication. But a viral exanthem rash is associated specifically with a virus. The symptoms may be similar, but the causes and treatments often differ.

Who might get a viral exanthem rash?

Anyone can get a viral exanthem rash, including children.

How common is viral exanthem rash?

These rashes are common, and so are many of the viruses that cause them.

Symptoms and Causes

What causes viral exanthem rash?

A virus can cause a viral exanthem rash in one of three ways:

  • The rash is your body’s immune response to the virus.
  • Damage to your skin by the organism.
  • Reaction to a toxin the virus produces.

Viruses that commonly cause exanthem rash include:

Other viruses that may cause viral exanthem rash include:

What are the symptoms of a viral exanthem rash?

A viral exanthem rash causes spots, bumps or blotches on your skin. They can appear anywhere on your body but often start on your face or trunk and then spread. The rash may or may not be itchy.

People often have other viral symptoms, such as:

Is a viral exanthem rash contagious?

The viruses that cause viral exanthem rashes are contagious and can spread easily from person to person. Ask a healthcare provider when you or your child can go back to work, school, daycare or other activities around people.

It’s important to be especially careful around those who are pregnant and people with compromised immune systems. Immunocompromised people include those with HIV, organ transplant recipients and people receiving certain cancer treatments. Viruses can be especially dangerous to someone who is immunocompromised.

Diagnosis and Tests

How is it diagnosed?

A healthcare provider can usually diagnose a viral exanthem rash based on your symptoms. Occasionally, they may order a blood test or a swab of your nose or throat to identify the virus.

Management and Treatment

What’s the treatment for a viral exanthem rash?

Treatment aims to ease symptoms of the skin rash and other virus symptoms. For example, your healthcare provider might recommend lotions or creams to reduce itchiness, and acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can lower fever and relieve body aches.

But there’s no treatment or cure for most viruses. You usually have to wait for the virus to run its course.

Prevention

How can I reduce my risk of viral exanthem rashes?

To reduce the risk of viral exanthem rashes, you should use strategies to prevent getting a viral infection:

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, which are entry points for viruses and other germs.
  • Clean surfaces that you and other people touch frequently, such as doorknobs, faucets and countertops.
  • Get vaccinated against viruses that have vaccines available.
  • Keep your distance from people who are sick, and don’t touch objects they’ve touched.
  • Wash your hands frequently, especially before handling food.

If you’re sick, additional strategies can help you prevent giving a virus to others:

  • Avoid close contact with people.
  • Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze.
  • Stay home from work, school and other public places.
  • Wear a face mask.

Outlook / Prognosis

How long does a viral exanthem rash last?

A viral rash can last a few days to a few weeks. It depends on the type of viral infection and how long it takes to run its course. Talk to a healthcare provider about how long your rash might last and how long you might be contagious.

Are there any long-term effects from a viral exanthem rash?

Most viral rashes have no long-term effects, but if you scratch too much, you can cause scars or skin infections.

Living With

How do I treat a viral exanthem rash at home?

If you or your child has a viral exanthem rash:

  • Apply a cool, wet cloth on the skin for 15 to 30 minutes several times a day.
  • Ask your healthcare provider what creams or medications can help. Examples include hydrocortisone cream and calamine lotion.
  • Try not to scratch the area, which can cause infections or scars.

When should I seek medical attention for a viral exanthem rash?

Call your healthcare provider anytime you aren’t getting better as expected. Also, seek medical attention if you or your child has signs of skin infection:

  • High fever.
  • Pus draining from the rash.
  • Red streaks on your skin.
  • Skin pain or swelling.
  • Warmth around an area of the rash.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

A viral exanthem rash is an eruption of spots, bumps or splotches that might occur with various viral infections. Talk to your healthcare provider about ways to prevent and treat viral infections.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/18/2022.

References

  • DermNet AZ. Exanthems. (https://dermnetnz.org/topics/exanthems) Accessed 2/7/2022.
  • Government of Alberta. Viral Rash in Children: Care Instructions. (https://myhealth.alberta.ca/Health/aftercareinformation/pages/conditions.aspx?hwid=acd7520) Accessed 2/7/2022.
  • Primary Care Dermatology Society. Viral exanthems. (https://www.pcds.org.uk/clinical-guidance/viral-exanthems) Accessed 2/7/2022.

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