Causes and Treatments for Red Spots on the Skin

Medically Reviewed By Angelica Balingit, MD
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Red spots on the skin can be a symptom of various conditions, including infections and allergic reactions. They can show up anywhere on the body. Depending on the underlying cause, they may appear suddenly or develop over a longer period of time. Red spots can range from tiny to large in size and may cover a small or sizable area of the body. Red spots can be itchy or painful, flat or raised, and vary in color from pink to bright red to a purplish red color.

This article explains everything you need to know about red spots on the body, including their possible causes and treatments.

What do red spots on the skin mean?

Red spots can mean several things. They may represent relatively harmless or benign problems, such as insect bites. However, they may also be a sign of a serious disease, such as leukemia. 

Red spots on the skin are different than solidly red, inflamed skin. Red spots can be hard to see on dark skin. It may be easier to find them on naturally lighter areas, such as the buttocks. However, it may be nearly impossible to see red spots on very dark skin.

Tiny pinpoint red dots, or petechiae, may indicate a life threatening condition, such as meningitis. These petechiae are due to broken blood vessels just underneath the skin. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for red spots on the skin along with:

  • stiff neck
  • change in alertness
  • high fever
  • difficulty breathing
  • bloody stools
  • swelling of the face or tongue

Seek prompt medical care if the red spots are persistent or you are concerned about your symptoms.

Eczema and allergies

Eczema, or atopic dermatitis, is an inflammatory skin condition. It usually starts in childhood but can start at any age. While the exact cause is unclear, allergies may play a role.

Allergens and allergic conditions that can cause red spots include:

  • allergic contact dermatitis, such as an allergy to latex or an insect bite
  • allergic purpura due to blood pooling under the skin
  • animal allergy
  • drug reaction
  • food allergy
  • hives
  • irritant contact dermatitis, such as diaper rash
  • poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac

Contact dermatitis

contact dermatitis on man's arms
Contact dermatitis is due to skin contact with an irritant. vvoe/Shutterstock

Hives

hives on person's lower leg and ankle
Hives are bumps that can appear anywhere on the skin. They usually result from an allergic reaction, but stress can cause them as well. Roberto Binetti/Shutterstock

Symptoms

Eczema causes dry, itchy skin. It can also cause a rash with red, scaly patches. These spots may appear on the hands, feet, and arms, or in skin folds, such as the back of the knees. 

Treatment

People with eczema can manage it with gentle skin products and moisturizers without harsh chemicals or exfoliating agents. It is also important to protect your skin from cold temperatures and irritating materials.

Doctors may prescribe medicines, such as corticosteroid creams and other topical products.

For serious cases of eczema, there is an injectable biologic medicine, dupilumab (Dupixent).

When to see a doctor

See your doctor if you have dry, itchy, red patches that persist despite home treatment.

Outlook

Eczema is a chronic condition without a cure. However, the symptoms are manageable. It can come and go over a person’s lifetime. However, many children outgrow their eczema.

Insect bites

Insect and bug bites and stings can cause red spots on the skin. These bugs include:

  • bedbugs
  • bees and wasps
  • biting flies
  • fire ants
  • fleas
  • mosquitoes
  • scabies
  • ticks

Flea bites

closeup of flea bites on skin
This image depicts flea bites. wiroj Roudkhlay/Shutterstock

Scabies infestation

red blotches on white skin from scabies infestation
This is a rash caused by a scabies infestation. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Symptoms

Insect bites and stings can cause different sizes and types of red spots on the skin. They can range from large mounds to small clusters of bumps.

Treatment

In most cases, you can treat insect bites and stings at home. Over-the-counter medicines can help relieve itching and swelling. This includes corticosteroid creams, antihistamine creams and pills, and other topical anti-itch medicines. 

When to see a doctor

Seek immediate medical attention for serious symptoms after an insect bite or sting, including:

Outlook

Most insect bites and stings are harmless, but they can be uncomfortable.

Strep throat

Strep throat is a bacterial infection. Group A strep is the bacteria that causes it. These bacteria can release a toxin that causes a rash you may know as scarlet fever.

Symptoms

The rash of scarlet fever is red and blotchy. At first the red spots are usually flat. However, they can turn into tiny sandpaper-like bumps.

white person with red spots over back due to scarlet fever, a bacterial illness that can happen with strep throat
Scarlet fever is a bacterial illness that can happen as a result of strep throat. Estreya, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Treatment

Doctors treat scarlet fever with antibiotics. Antibiotics help you feel better faster and prevent complications, such as rheumatic fever.

When to see a doctor

See a doctor promptly for a rash with any the following symptoms:

Outlook

Complications of scarlet fever are rare but possible. Some of them can be serious, such as kidney injury and rheumatic fever. Antibiotic treatment can help reduce the chance of these complications.

Viral infection

Viral infections can also cause red spots and rashes on the skin. These infections include measles, mumps, rubella, roseola, and chickenpox.

Measles

dark skinned child with measles rash over entire back
Measles is a highly contagious viral illness that presents with a high fever and a rash. Mike Blyth, 2002

Chickenpox

dark skinned child with chickenpox blisters on face
Chickenpox is a viral infection caused by the varicella zoster virus. Grook da oger, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Roseola

baby with rash over entire back due to roseola, a viral infection
Roseola is a viral infection that starts with a high fever and progresses into a rash. hadungsak sawasdee/Shutterstock

Symptoms

The rash of these viral infections can vary depending on the virus. Chickenpox causes small blisters, while a mumps rash is usually flat. A measles rash has very red, small spots all over the skin. 

Treatment

Treatment for viral infections is mainly supportive, such as fever reducers to keep you comfortable. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) are options. You should also drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated. In some cases, there are antiviral medicines that can help treat the infection.

When to see a doctor

See a doctor promptly for a rash with symptoms that suggest a viral infection. These symptoms include:

Outlook

Most people recover from viral infections without complications. However, measles, mumps, and chickenpox can lead to problems, such as pneumonia and meningitis. Rubella can cause birth abnormalities if it occurs during pregnancy. Getting vaccinated against these viruses can help prevent illness.

Petechial rash from meningitis

petechial rash on white person's skin
Meningitis can cause a rash, but it is not due to the infection itself. Rather, it is due to bleeding under the skin. It is a petechial rash. Photo by DermNet New Zealand

Lupus

white woman with butterfly shaped rash  indicating lupus.
Lupus can cause a malar, or butterfly shaped, rash on the face. Doktorinternet, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Lupus is an autoimmune disorder that can affect the skin.

Symptoms

Many people are familiar with the butterfly rash of lupus. This form of cutaneous lupus causes a red rash across the cheeks. However, it is more solid

than spotted, resembling a sunburn. 

Two other forms of cutaneous lupus can cause spots or sores. One causes disc-shaped sores on the face and scalp. The other causes red ring-shaped sores, usually on the arms.

Treatment

Doctors treat lupus skin problems with medicines to control inflammation and suppress the immune system. You can help your skin by protecting it from sun exposure.

When to see a doctor

See a doctor promptly if you develop any skin symptoms with lupus.

Outlook

A dermatologist can help you find the right treatment to manage cutaneous lupus symptoms.

Vasculitis

Vasculitis is inflammation of blood vessel walls. In some cases, it can cause skin lesions.

Symptoms

The skin spots from vasculitis can be flat and red. They can also appear as lumps or purpura, which are spots of pooled blood under the skin. “Purpura” means purple.

vasculitis-1024x575.jpg
Vasculitis refers to inflammation of the blood vessels. It can cause skin presentations with petechiae and purpura. James Heilman, MD, CC BY-SA 3.0 via, Wikimedia Commons

Treatment

Vasculitis can have several causes. Treatment depends on the underlying problem. In some cases, treatment is supportive, meaning doctors treat the symptoms. For allergic or autoimmune causes, medicines to reduce immune system activity can help.

When to see a doctor

See a doctor promptly if you develop red or purple spots on the skin. Other symptoms of vasculitis include:

Outlook

The outlook for cutaneous vasculitis depends on the cause. Some causes may involve lifelong medication and serious complications.

Blood disorder

Purpura and petechiae are the result of bleeding into the skin. There can be several causes ranging from platelet and clotting problems to meningococcal disease and other infections.

Purpura

purpura-1024x575.jpg
Purpura are due to blood vessels bursting or leaking blood under the skin. They are usually more purple and larger than petechiae. Photo by DermNet New Zealand

Petechiae

petechia-1024x575.jpg
Petechiae are small spots that develop as a result of bleeding under the skin. They are sometimes associated with low platelets or a blood clotting disorder. Photo: James Heilman M.D. | Flickr

Symptoms

Purpura are purplish spots under the skin that can range in size. Petechiae are tiny pinpoint dots. 

Treatment

The spots themselves do not necessarily require medical care because the body will absorb the blood eventually. Treatment depends on what is causing the bleeding. In the case of bacterial infections, IV antibiotics may be necessary. In some cases, treatment will require intensive care.

When to see a doctor

Seek immediate medical care for purpura or petechiae with any of these symptoms:

  • bloody stool, bloody urine, or vomiting blood
  • breathing problems
  • change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness
  • fever
  • rapid heart rate 
  • severe headache
  • stiff neck

Outlook

The underlying cause of purpura and petechiae will influence the outlook.

Leukemia

Leukemia can affect the skin in several ways. When a rash appears, it is not the leukemia itself. Instead, it is the effect leukemia has on platelets, which are blood cells required for blood to clot. Leukemia causes low levels of platelets. This leads to petechiae.

Symptoms

Petechiae are very small, pinpoint red dots on the skin. They are the result of bleeding from tiny blood vessels into the skin. Other symptoms of leukemia include:

Treatment

Treating leukemia can help return platelet levels to normal.

When to see a doctor

If you have leukemia and develop red spots or a rash, see your doctor. Often, the cause is not related to the cancer. However, petechiae can be an important symptom related to leukemia.

Outlook

There are several types of leukemia. The outlook will depend on the type of leukemia and other factors.

Leukemia cutis

leukemia-cutis-1024x575.jpg
Leukemia cutis is a skin manifestation possible in leukemia. It happens when the malignant cells infiltrate the skin layers. Photo by DermNet New Zealand

Diagnosis

Rashes and red spots on the skin are symptoms. There can be numerous underlying causes. Diagnosing the cause will depend on the specific type of rash, your symptoms, and your medical history. Blood tests and imaging exams may help your doctor find the root of the problem.

Summary

Red spots on the skin can mean several things. Some of the causes are relatively harmless. However, red spots with other symptoms, such as fever or stiff neck, could be serious.

See your doctor if you have a skin condition that persists. Seek care right away for a skin rash with other concerning symptoms.

Red spots on the skin can be hard to see on the skin of People of Color. Rash-like red spots may have other characteristics, such as an unusual texture or raised skin that you can detect on all skin colors. Other symptoms, such as painful spots on the skin, may also point to a potential problem.

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Medical Reviewer: Angelica Balingit, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 Mar 23
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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