If you’ve had a rash, you may have had erythema. The Greek word erythros means “red.” Thus, erythema is any sort of abnormal redness of your skin. Not only is unusual, visible skin redness often a source of social embarrassment for many people, but it can also be painful, as well as a symptom for more serious health concerns like Lyme disease.
If you want to restore your skin’s natural glow and soothe irritated skin symptoms, it’s important to understand the many causes of erythema and natural ways to calm and reduce skin redness, inflammation and rashes.
What Is Erythema?
There are several forms of erythematous skin redness that may affect you, but all of them are grouped under the general medical term “erythema.” It involves any unusual spreading redness or red marks on the skin, often with additional symptoms like a fever or blistering.
All forms of erythema are due to an increase in blood flow to the skin’s surface. (1) This helps to differentiate these skin rashes from other common skin conditions (e.g. blushing).
Signs and Symptoms
The signs and symptoms you’ll experience when you have erythema will differ depending on the form of erythematous redness you see. Types include:
1. Erythema multiforme
When most people have erythema multiforme, they simply notice a rash. However, additional signs and symptoms may be present in rarer cases.
The skin redness that accompanies this form shows up suddenly in just a couple days. It usually starts either on your feet or hands before gradually spreading across your body. (2)
The erythemic rash itself begins as small red dots. They slowly turn into raised skin patches that may feel itchy. In most cases, these skin patches take the form of a target shape that may have a slight crust on its surface. It takes two to four weeks for the rash to fade and go away on its own.
In some situations, you may also experience a fever, headaches, aching joints and changes in your vision.
2. Erythema nodosum
The rash that comes from erythema nodosum usually takes the forms of sensitive bumps (or nodules, hence the name) on your skin surface. (3) The big clue is the location of this rash: It almost always is found only on the front of your legs from the knees down.
These sensitive skin nodules measure a few centimeters across, typically no larger than the diameter of a quarter.
After being raised and inflamed for a few weeks, the rash usually begins to fade, leaving behind little dots that look like miniature bruises on your shins.
A woman with chronic erythema nodosum who had painful lesions on both shins was treated with four weeks of twice weekly injections of vitamin B12 at a dose of 1,000 micrograms. The erythema nodosum was totally resolved. (4)
3. Erythema migrans
Erythema migrans starts off as a single small red dot. Over time, another ring begins to form and you’re left with a distinct pattern: a red dot, a ring of clear, non-red skin, and another ring of red. (6)
Over time, this red color may change to be anywhere from a light pink to a dark purple. The redness itself may feel itchy or tender to the touch, but it’s almost never accompanied by pain. However, brief periods of headaches, muscle pain, achy joints, chronic fatigue or even fever may kick in.
For most people, erythema migrans goes away after three to four weeks.
4. Erythema toxicum
Erythema toxicum, more often referred to as erythema toxicum neonatorum (ETN), is a harmless skin rash usually seen on infants. (7) It’s commonly noticed as small, red dots, sometimes surrounded by a blotchy red rash with no clear, distinct borders to the rash.
The dots themselves don’t last very long — sometimes, they come and go within hours — but the rash’s size can ebb and flow and appear on different parts of a baby’s body before going away completely.
5. Erythema marginatum
Erythema marginatum is very rare, as it’s linked with rheumatic fever and even then only appears in 5 percent of patients who have rheumatic fever. (8)
It usually shows up in areas where your limbs join your body. The rash itself creates very light pink rings that aren’t bumpy or swollen, and are always non-itchy. The rash may come and go, but it can last for months on end.
6. Palmar erythema
As its name implies, if you have a red rash that shows up only on the palms of both of your hands, it’s likely you have palmar erythema. (9) Besides being on both hands, symptoms include a warm sensation that is neither painful nor itchy.
Causes and Risk Factors
Erythema causes range widely and have obvious implications on your future treatment and prevention.
1. Erythema multiforme
Doctors are still unsure of the exact causes of this form of erythema. (2) However, for most people it is usually triggered by specific medication your doctor may have prescribed you, or it may be a sign of an infection.
Viral infections are a far more common trigger for this rash, with herpes simplex (the cold sore virus) being one of the main culprits behind erythema multiforme.
2. Erythema nodosum
Erythema nodosum’s risk factors are as varied as its symptoms. (3) It may be triggered by medications (such as estrogen hormone pills or birth control pills), fungal diseases and even pregnancy.
Because there are dozens of potential causes, your doctor will typically need to take a biopsy to confirm whether the rash you have is truly erythema nodosum.
3. Erythema migrans
Erythema migrans is one of the most common signs of Lyme disease after you’ve been bitten by an infected tick. (6) In fact, 80 percent of people who get Lyme disease also get this skin rash.
The rash will usually appear within a week of getting bitten. If the rash is ignored and the Lyme disease continues without being treated, the disease can begin to affect your internal organs (including your brain) and lead to paralysis, mood changes and more.
4. Erythema toxicum
Pediatricians are not exactly sure what causes erythema stomach dots and other tiny rashes on newborns. (6) Some hypothesize that it’s due to a baby’s skin adjusting to the outside world and perhaps being irritated by the air, detergent used to wash laundry, etc. (12)
Others theorize that it’s caused by the baby’s developing immune system. (13)
5. Erythema marginatum
6. Palmar erythema
There are two main causes of palmar erythema. The most common one is hereditary. The redness may be less of a sign of an infection or health problem and simply the way the blood vessels in your hands appear. The second most common cause is pregnancy, with a third of pregnant women experiencing redness of their palms. (7)
Diagnosis and Conventional Treatment
There is currently no blanket erythema treatment for all cases, nor is there an easy way for your doctor to quickly diagnose your skin rash.
To diagnose erythema, your doctor will likely follow several key steps:
- A review of the rash pattern, size and the area of your body on which it occurs.
- A review of any other symptoms you’re experiencing, such as fever or blurred vision.
- If the above two factors don’t create a clear perspective on your skin irritation, your doctor may order a skin biopsy to determine the specific form of erythema you have.
In cases where erythema is triggered by a lifestyle or genetic situation that can’t be “fixed” (e.g. pregnancy for erythema nodosum or genetics for palmar erythema), your doctor may simply offer you ways to soothe or hide the redness. This may include antihistamines or similar drugs to manage skin symptoms like itching.
If your erythema is caused by an infection or disease, your doctor will treat the underlying problem. For example, in skin rashes caused by Lyme disease, oral antibiotics like amoxicillin are commonly used to treat the disease, which in turn helps resolve the erythema. (15) However, the antibiotics aren’t a “cure” for the rash itself.
After a careful assessment of your skin’s health, a doctor’s conventional treatment seeks to find the underlying trigger and deal with that in order to clear up your skin.
Tips to Help Soothe Erythema
Because erythema has so many wide-ranging triggers, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. However, there are several clear natural-based strategies that can boost your skin health, reduce skin irritation and inflammation, and work as complementary approaches to other treatments to get your skin back in top shape.
1. Avoid Skin Irritation
While some forms, such as erythema toxicum, may be specifically linked to external irritants, it’s important that you avoid unnecessary skin irritation and inflammation no matter what form of the condition you’re facing.
Even if your skin rash or bumps are caused by a virus infection, reducing your skin’s exposure to skin irritants reduces the overall stress on your body and gives your skin a better chance to heal faster.
Avoid wearing perfumes or using laundry detergents that contain scents or perfumes. (16) You may also want to avoid any products — especially shampoo or body wash — that contain sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). SLS strips your skin’s surface of the natural oils your skin needs to protect itself from redness, dryness and irritation.
2. Try a Natural Antihistamine or Cortisone Cream Alternative
Cortisone creams reduce skin swelling, and antihistamines reduce skin itchiness, which makes either or both of them valuable if these are symptoms of your specific form of erythema. (17)
In fact, your doctor may even prescribe an antihistamine specifically for erythema multiforme and other skin rashes. (18)
Taking 2 grams of vitamin C a day can yield powerful antihistamine results, notes one report published in the medical journal Alternative Medicine Review. (19) The same report also cites human trials and clinical studies that found bromelain (sourced from pineapple), quercetin (an antioxidant in apples and onions) and stinging nettle (a natural herb) to be effective antihistamines.
3. Use Natural Ingredients That Calm Redness and Irritation
Local skin care is one of the first treatments for many forms of erythema, and nature offers many organic ways to soothe and care for irritated skin affected by rashes. (14)
The University of Rochester Medical Center notes that aloe vera has long been used to heal and soften the skin, kill bacteria, viruses and fungi, and improve skin cell regeneration. (21) A study of 59 adults also found that aloe vera gel has anti-erythema properties when applied to the skin rashes for six days. (22)
Skin creams and moisturizers containing oatmeal can also help soothe skin, with no indications that it irritates or makes inflamed skin worse. (23)
4. Tighten Skin Capillaries
All forms of erythema are due to increased blood flow to your skin’s surface. You can naturally, albeit temporarily, tighten the capillaries that go to your skin surface, thus helping to reduce skin redness.
Start by keeping your skin cool. This can be accomplished with cooling gels (including aloe vera gel), patting your skin gently with a cold, damp cloth, and staying in the shade.
Caffeine applied to your skin surface can also soothe your skin and tighten up the blood vessels, thus restricting blood flow and reducing redness. (24) Many skin care products now contain caffeine, or you can try moist cold compresses using green tea bags or black tea bags (a natural source of caffeine, plus skin-enriching antioxidants).
5. Eat Foods That Fight Skin Inflammation
Several specific foods can help nourish your skin from the inside out by reducing inflammation and irritation. (25) These include:
- Nuts, which contain skin-soothing healthy fats.
- Tuna and other fatty fish, which are rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3s.
- Colorful fruits, which are rich in skin-healing antioxidants.
Because it’s sometimes difficult to differentiate between a harmless form of skin irritation and one that could be a symptom of a major health crisis (such as Lyme disease), it’s important that you always talk to your doctor or a medical professional if you have any questions or worries about a skin rash you’ve just noticed.
While many cases of erythema resolve themselves on their own and aren’t painful or itchy, some forms need to be treated immediately to keep the related disease or health concern from becoming more serious.
The only way to find out is through an accurate assessment from your health professional.
Erythema is a common form of skin redness occasionally accompanied by other symptoms, like fever or achy joints:
- There are multiple kinds, which can be recognized either by the patterns of redness (i.e. a bull’s-eye shape or a patch of little bumps) or by the accompanying symptoms.
- The rashes themselves may be constrained to just one part of your body or cover the entire body. Some forms of erythema rashes are itchy or painful, while others are simply red.
- Causes can include genetics, infections and diseases like Lyme disease, medications, or lifestyle situations such as pregnancy.
- Your doctor will diagnose you by reviewing the pattern of the rash while also reviewing any related symptoms.
- A skin biopsy is often the only way to accurately diagnose the type you have.
Because it can be a symptom of a life-threatening illness, you should always consult and work with a doctor to treat the rash. While there is no single treatment that cures all forms, several natural skin-healing strategies can help you recover faster:
- Avoid perfumes, dyes, sodium lauryl sulfate and other ingredients in laundry detergent and personal care products that may irritate your skin.
- Use a natural cortisone cream for swelling, or a natural antihistamine for itching.
- Soothe your skin redness and irritation with aloe vera or oatmeal.
- Reduce skin redness by restricting blood flow to your skin’s surface.
- Eat foods that calm skin inflammation, including omega-3 fats and colorful fruits.