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When to See a Doctor for Skin Problems

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on May 24, 2021

The rash appears out of nowhere. Red welts spread. That itchy patch won’t go away. We all get the odd skin problem now and then. But when does it cross from simply annoying to something serious?

Lots of things can set off your skin. You might have an allergy, brush up against something irritating, get stung by a bug, or burn in the sun. Some people have conditions like psoriasis -- when skin cells pile up in thick patches -- or eczema, an itchy dryness that you can scratch into a rash.

Watch and Wait

Usually, time and self-care may be all you need If your symptoms:

  • Aren’t painful
  • Don’t get worse
  • Look mild, like a sunburn with no blisters or acne in only a few spots

When to Get Help ​​​​​​​

Call your doctor if your symptoms seem more serious. They include:

  • A fever
  • Pus, a thick liquid that’s a sign of infection
  • A problem that spreads or won’t go away
  • A full-body breakout

Itching

When you have the “itchies” and can’t stop scratching, it’s usually caused by dry skin. Also called pruritus, it happens more often as you get older and your skin gets drier. Air conditioning and central heat don’t help, either.

A cool bath, moisturizer, a humidifier, and an over-the-counter anti-itch product can help.

Call Your Doctor If:

  • Home treatment doesn’t help or the itch lasts more than a couple of weeks.
  • The itch comes on suddenly and is all over your body. You could have an allergic reaction or an illness like thyroid problems or liver disease.
  • You also have a fever or feel tired.
  • The itch keeps you awake or makes it hard to go about your day.

Patches

These can form when skin cells grow too quickly and older cells don’t slough off. The pileup happens with conditions like psoriasis, which can run in families.

Sometimes you can treat psoriasis flare-ups with home remedies like apple cider vinegar or aloe vera. But before you do, check with your doctor. Even if you have only a handful of reddish patches, you still might need medical treatment right away.

Call Your Doctor If:

  • Your patches show up after you’ve been out in the sun too long. A condition called actinic keratosis can happen after sun exposure, mostly in people with fair skin and light-colored eyes and hair. If it’s not treated, it can lead to certain types of skin cancer.
  • The patches are hardened yellow, red, or brownish. That can be a warning flag for diabetes.

Rash

This can take on many forms -- blistery, bumpy, red, or scaly. It can be hard for you to figure out what caused it. It could be an illness, poison ivy, an allergic reaction, or many other things.

If you have a red, itchy rash where your skin touched something you’re allergic to, like jewelry, soap, or a plant, you might have contact dermatitis. If you can pinpoint the cause, try an anti-itch cream and cool compresses for relief until the flare-up goes away. This usually takes several weeks.

Call Your Doctor If:

  • The rash breaks out over your whole body or spreads quickly. This could be a sign of an allergic reaction.
  • It’s painful or shows sign of infection. It could be oozy, crusty, warm to the touch, or have red streaks.
  • You have a fever (temperature of 100 F or higher).
  • You have a blistery rash near your eyes, mouth, or genitals.
  • The rash is in warm folds of the skin, like between your fingers and under your breasts. It could be a fungal infection.

Welts

These are reddish, sometimes swollen-looking bumps or ridges on your skin. They tend to be very itchy and may burn or sting. They’re a common symptom of hives, when your body reacts to certain foods or allergens.

Welts and blotches from hives usually go away within a day. You can usually treat it at home.

Call Your Doctor If:

  • Your throat swells and you’re having a hard time breathing.
  • Your itching is very bad.
  • Your symptoms last longer than a couple of days.

Burns and Sunburn

Touched a hot oven rack or fried in the sun? If your burn is just on the top layer of skin -- it’s red or a just bit swollen or painful -- cool water, unscented aloe vera gel, and a few days’ time may be enough to heal.

Call Your Doctor If:

  • Your burn yourself with chemicals or from touching electricity.
  • You have signs of infection, like swelling, pus, or red streaks from blisters.
  • The burn covers a large part of your body.
  • You have a headache, fever, or are having a hard time breathing.
  • Home treatments don’t help.

Pimples

Anyone who’s been a teen knows that even one pimple can spark a sprint to the drugstore. Over-the-counter acne products can be a good way to treat a breakout. Try it for at least a month to give it time to work. After that, you could switch to a different product to see if it helps. For example, benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid target different symptoms.

Call Your Doctor If:

  • If your acne is severe, with many breakouts that go deep into your skin, or you see scarring.
  • You see lots of blackheads, whiteheads, or both.
  • Home skin care and treatments haven’t helped. You many need treatment that’s tailored for your type of acne.

How to Prepare for Your Doctor Visit

A little bit of preparation can help you get the most out of your appointment, whether in-person or via a telemedicine exam.

Check your insurance coverage. Call your health insurer if you have any questions about coverage. Find out if your doctor is an in-network or out-of-network provider (the latter may mean higher out-of-pocket costs for you); any co-pays; and if you have coverage for any specific tests that your doctor may order.

Bring a list. Jot down your skin concerns and your medical history on paper or on your smartphone. This includes medicines you take, illness or surgeries you’ve had, previous health problems, any past treatments for skin problems, when your current symptoms started, allergies, or relevant illnesses that run in your family.

Write down questions. Be sure to have a list of questions you have about your condition and your doctor. These include:

  • What could be causing my skin problem?
  • Could my family or medical history be a concern?
  • Do I need a full-skin exam?
  • Are my skin care products a possible cause?
  • Do I need a skin biopsy and, if so, when will the results be back?
  • Could something job-related, a sports activity, or a hobby or habit be affecting my skin?
  • Do I have any moles that look suspicious?  
  • What treatments do you recommend for my condition?

Take photos. It’s helpful if your doctor can see skin problems that appear or flare up only once in a while. Snap your pictures in well-lit areas, and shoot from multiple angles.

Don’t irritate your skin beforehand. Take care not to do anything that might change the appearance of your skin before your appointment. Avoid hot showers, rubbing or picking at your skin, makeup, or skin care products before you see your doctor.

When You Might Need a Dermatologist

Your primary care doctor can usually handle simple skin issues, such as mild acne, rosacea, warts, rashes, bug bites, cysts, athlete’s foot, dandruff, and benign lesions.

But if these conditions don’t clear up or you have more serious problems, your doctor may recommend that you see a skin specialist called a dermatologist. Reasons may include:

  • A rash or other skin problem covering more than 10% of your body
  • Sores, ulcers, unusual lesions or growths that don’t go away after a week or two
  • Other symptoms that could indicate a more serious issue, such as fever, joint aches, muscle pain, difficulty swallowing, or can’t sleep
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Dermatology: “Psoriasis Overview,” “Ten Things to Try When Acne Won’t Clear,” “Diabetes: 12 Warning Signs That Appear on Your Skin,” “What can clear severe acne?” “Rash 101 in Adults: When to Seek Treatment,” “How to Prepare for a Telemedicine Appointment.”

American College of Physicians: “Psoriasis Symptoms Can Be Tough to Address.”

Mayo Clinic: “Sunburn Treatment: Do I Need Medical Attention?” “Itchy Skin (Pruritis),” “Burns: Symptoms and Causes,” “Burns: First Aid,” “Contact Dermatitis,” “Hives and Angioedema.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Actinic Keratosis” “Got Skin Problems? How You Can Tell When a Specialist is Best.”

National Psoriasis Foundation: “Herbal and Natural Remedies.”

American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: “Skin Allergy.”

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