What Is a Maculopapular Rash?

Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on May 02, 2023
4 min read

Rashes are a common reason for medical visits. Getting an unexplained patch of red, irritated skin can be troubling and uncomfortable. You may want quick answers about how to heal the rash and avoid getting them in the future. 

Sometimes doctors use unfamiliar terms to describe a skin problem. The phrase maculopapular rash is something you might hear from a doctor. As complicated as that word sounds, it actually has a simple definition. It refers to how a rash looks — specifically whether it’s flat, bumpy, or both.

Learn more about maculopapular rashes and how to treat them. 

If your doctor says that you have a maculopapular rash, you might expect that to be the full explanation for what’s going on with your skin. However, the word maculopapular isn’t a diagnosis. It’s a description of how the rash looks. A macule is a flat, reddened area of skin present in a rash. A papule is a raised area of skin in a rash. Doctors use the term maculopapular to describe a rash with both flat and raised parts.

Understanding that your rash has bumps and flat sections can help you describe it to your doctor. However, your doctor will need you to answer other questions in order to figure out why you have a rash

If you have a rash, you will need to think back over your recent activities to figure out what caused it. Sometimes a rash comes from something you ingested, such as food or medicine. In other cases, you may have touched something that irritated your skin. 

Some of the most common causes of rashes include:‌

  • Atopic dermatitis: A skin condition such as eczema, which isn’t triggered by food, medicine, or touching an irritant. 
  • Contact dermatitis: A reaction to something that touched your skin. Chemicals like household cleaning products or plants like poison ivy can be the cause. 
  • Allergic reaction: Allergies to medications or food can cause rashes.
  • Psoriasis: A chronic skin disorder that causes rough, red patches of skin.
  • Heat rash: Skin can erupt in a rash due to being trapped under hot, damp clothing. 
  • Bug bites: Insects can leave clusters of bites that resemble a rash.

‌You can try some simple first aid remedies for a rash at home:

  • Cool, wet compresses. Hold a cool, damp cloth against the rash for 15 to 30 minutes to soothe the skin. Repeat several times a day.
  • Don’t scratch. Scratching can lead to infections from broken skin. Cover the rash with a gauze dressing if you’re tempted to scratch.
  • Cool bath. Try soaking in a tub of cool water. You can add baking soda or an oatmeal bath product to the water to ease itching. 
  • Anti-itch creams: Over-the-counter anti-itch creams can ease discomfort from minor allergic rashes. 
  • Be gentle. Don’t use soap on the area with the rash. Wash it only with cool water. Pat rashes dry instead of rubbing them.

If home care doesn’t improve your rash, call your doctor. You may need a prescription to heal the irritation on your skin. 

There are times when a rash is an indication of a serious health problem. If you have a sudden, unexplained rash, it may mean you are having an allergic reaction, or you have an underlying illness or infection. You may need immediate medical help. Call the doctor immediately if any of the following situations occur:

Sudden Onset: If you get a rash that appears quickly and spreads rapidly, it might be an allergy. Allergic reactions to medications are common and can be severe. If you are having trouble breathing as well as a rash, call 911.

Fever: If you have a rash with a fever, call a doctor or 911 immediately. It could be an allergic reaction or an infection, including diseases such as scarlet fever, measles, mononucleosis, and shingles.

All Over Your Body: A rash covering a lot of your body may be due to an infection or allergic reaction.

Blisters: If your rash has blisters or open sores, it could be a serious issue. It’s severe if the blisters are near your mouth, eyes, or genitals. Blistering sometimes happens if a rash is due to an infection or is a reaction to medication.

Pain: You should always talk to a doctor about painful rashes.

Infection: The skin where the rash is can get infected from scratching at it. If you notice yellow or green fluid, crusting, pain, or warmth and swelling around the rash, call your doctor.

‌Most of the time, rashes will get better with time and care. However, you should always take a rash seriously since it can be a symptom of more significant problems. If you have an unexplained rash, call your doctor to discuss it and decide on treatment.