Summer rashes

Rash is a term that describes any visible skin outbreak. Many rashes are itchy, red, painful, and irritated. Rashes are very common in all ages, and nearly everyone will have some type of rash at some point in their life. These rashes can be caused by sunlight, insects, sweating, and overheating during the summer months—especially if they have allergies and/or pre-existing skin conditions. There are several different types of skin rashes; here are some that are likely to occur during the summer months.

Heat rash (prickly heat)

Heat can cause rashes when sweat ducts, found all over your body, are blocked and sweat is unable to come out of your skin. It often leads to discomfort and itching. Heat rash is a red or pink rash usually found on body areas covered by clothing. It can happen if you’re wearing thick clothing, heavy creams, or are in extreme heat.

Wear breathable, natural fabrics, and stay away from heavy lotions or creams to prevent a heat rash. Sitting in an air conditioned room or near a fan may help. A light moisturizer after a cool shower can also ease the pain.

Heat rash usually goes away on its own within a day or two when your skin cools down, and a hydrocortisone cream can help alleviate any discomfort in the meantime. If it doesn’t go away after three or four days, or if it appears to be getting worse, it’s not a heat rash and you should immediately contact your doctor.

Mosquito bites

Mosquitoes are most attracted to exposed areas of skin that are warm and moist. You may quickly develop redness, swelling, itching, and a small bump the size of a fingertip.  Sometimes this does not appear for 24 hours. Most people will get relief by using hydrocortisone cream or taking an antihistamine (certirizine (Zyrtec) or diphenhydramine (Benadryl).  Ask your pharmacist which is the best one for you. Your body may react more strongly to mosquitoes in different regions, so be sure to pack insect repellent for any trip. Look for DEET 20% or so.  Spray it on your clothing and exposed skin.

Bee stings

Bees are most active during the day’s hottest hours. You’ll feel a sting as soon as it happens. Bee venom causes itchy or stinging sensations, which last for 15 to 20 minutes, and creates a welt about the size of a dime. Immediately apply ice wrapped in a towel for 10 to 20 minutes to ease discomfort. Hydrocortisone cream and calamine lotion can relieve itching. Certirizine (Zyrtec) or diphenhydramine (Benadryl) will also work.  Use acetaminophen (Tylenol) for the pain.  Avoid bright clothing and fragrances, and try to keep your skin covered. Most bees don’t sting people unless aggravated, so don’t panic if you see one; just try to avoid it.

Poison ivy, oak, and sumac

Any part of the body that comes in contact with poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac may get red and itchy and swell, sometimes followed by blisters. All three plants contain the toxin urushiol, which causes an allergic reaction in most people. You’ll likely notice the rash within 48-72 hours, and symptoms could actually worsen as many as five days later. While the rash should go away on its own within one to two weeks, you can ease the itching with calamine lotion, hydrocortisone 1% applied to the rash, and an antihistamine (certirizine or diphenhydramine).

See your doctor if your rash is severe or your eyes, face, or genitals are affected. Clothing, garden tools, or even pets that have been exposed to poison ivy, oak, or sumac, can spread the toxin. The oil from these plants is most potent for 30 to 60 minutes after contact, so wash your clothing and rinse exposed skin with soap and water.

Athlete’s foot

Going barefoot in environments where fungi thrive, like pools, the backyard, or the gym causes cracking, itching, or skin to appear white, dry, or scaly. Advisable to keep your flip-flops on.

Swimmer’s itch

Swimming in contaminated water can expose skin to parasites, often from bird droppings. A red, patchy, itchy rash develops within 48 hours. The rash will go away on its own, but symptoms can last for weeks. Ease discomfort with calamine lotion, hydrocortisone creams, or antihistamines. Though the rash can occur after swimming in any natural body of water, it is less common in the ocean and running water. Avoid lakes with large bird populations or stagnant shallows, especially after a warm or dry spell. Rinsing off after a swim can help too.

Self-care and treatments

Most summer skin rashes are not harmful and will disappear by themselves after a few days. Most rashes can be safely and effectively treated at home.

Try one or more of these measures:

  • Wear light, loose-fitting soft clothes that don’t trap heat or moisture. Natural fabrics such as cotton are the best.
  • Spend time in cool, air-conditioned, or well-ventilated environments.
  • Take frequent cool baths or showers.
  • Ask your doctor or pharmacist if there are any creams or tablets that may help you.
  • Don’t scratch the affected area, as it may worsen and become infected.

It’s important to drink plenty of water in hot weather and ensure that you reduce sun exposure to your skin.

When to seek medical help

The need for medical treatment often depends on what other symptoms are present. A rash that occurs with other symptoms, such as shortness of breath or fever, may mean another problem, such as a serious allergic reaction or infection.

A dermatologist is a medical provider who specializes in diseases of the skin and may need to be consulted for rashes that are difficult to diagnose and treat. See your doctor if the rash doesn’t improve by itself, seems to be getting worse, or if you have signs of skin infection.

Individuals should consult with their health care provider before starting any medications. 

Last reviewed: 
June 2017

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