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What Is a Viral Exanthem Rash?

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on May 31, 2022

Viral exanthem rashes are a symptom of a viral infection. 

Exanthem is a medical term for a widespread rash across your body. Exanthem rashes are typically caused by viral infections, bacterial infections, or certain medications. The ones caused by viruses are called viral exanthem rashes. 

What Causes Viral Exanthem?

There are a number of different viral infections that can lead to a viral exanthem rash. Not all of these infections create a rash in everyone that they infect. Keep in mind that some types of infections are more common than others. Plus, some are more dangerous to your health than others. 

Viral infections that can cause exanthem include: 

There are a number of ways that all of these infections could trigger viral exanthem in your body. In some cases, your rash is your immune system's natural way of reacting to the infection. 

The virus could also be causing direct damage to your body. This could be either in the form of physical damage to your skin or as a reaction to the toxins that some viruses produce. 

What Are Common Viral Exanthem Symptoms?

Viral exanthem can start anywhere on your body. Your torso and face are the most common starting points. Then the rash spreads out from there. 

The symptoms of the rash itself can vary from person to person. Rash symptoms can include:

  • Red or pink spots on large portions of your body
  • Itchiness — but not all viral exanthem rashes will be itchy
  • Blisters

If your rash is itchy, you can cause even more damage by scratching yourself too much. This can lead to scarring and open wounds that cause skin infections. 

Typically, the rash can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. It depends on which virus has caused it. 

Your rash will likely be accompanied by all of the other symptoms that these viruses are known to cause. This can differ from one type of infection to another. Symptoms that are fairly common for most of the underlying viral infections include: 

For the most part, these symptoms will also last for the entirety of your infection.

Is Viral Exanthem Contagious?

Viral exanthem rashes aren’t inherently contagious, but the virus that’s causing your rash is likely very contagious. You should avoid close contact with others while you still have the rash so you don’t pass the infection on to someone else. 

Ways to prevent spreading your infection to others include: 

  • Covering your nose and mouth when you sneeze and cough
  • Staying away from public places, including school or your job
  • Wearing a face mask when you have to go near other people

You should be especially cautious around pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems. Talk to your doctor to find out when it’s safe for you to return to school or work. 

How Is a Viral Exanthem Rash Diagnosed?

Your doctor will diagnose your viral exanthem by examining all of your symptoms. You’ll need to undergo testing to find out exactly which virus is causing your rash. You might need a blood test and swabs of your nose or throat. 

What Are Effective Viral Exanthem Rash Treatments?

There typically aren’t any treatments for the underlying viral infections that cause your viral exanthem. You need to let yourself rest, and the infection should clear up on its own within a few days or weeks. 

The main treatment options are meant to soothe your symptoms. Common treatments include using lotions and creams like calamine lotion and hydrocortisone cream. 

To soothe your skin, you can try applying a wet, cold cloth to irritated areas throughout the day. Leave it on for 15 to 30 minutes. 

You can also take acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen to help manage any body aches or fever. 

Keep in mind that you shouldn’t use aspirin to treat viral diseases in kids. The use of aspirin is associated with Reye's syndrome, which can be a deadly disorder in young children. 

How Can You Prevent a Viral Exanthem Rash?

The best way to prevent viral exanthem is to keep yourself safe from viral infections. To avoid getting viral infections, you should: 

  • Get vaccinated for the infections that have vaccines available — this includes chickenpox, measles, mumps, and rubella.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Clean commonly used surfaces, like doorknobs and countertops, before and after you handle them.
  • Wash and sanitize your hands often, especially just before you eat.
  • Stay away from people who are currently sick.

What Else Could Your Rash Be?

If you’ve recently developed a rash but it’s not accompanied by any of the other symptoms of a viral infection, it might not be a viral exanthem rash. 

Common types of rashes include:

  • Contact dermatitisThis can be caused by anything that your skin touches, like chemicals, cosmetics, and detergents. It’s also the name for the rash created by contact with poison ivy, poison oak, and sumac. The condition can be irritating but is relatively harmless. It typically clears up when you stop coming into contact with whatever caused it. 
  • Atopic dermatitis or eczemaThis rash is almost always itchy and scaly in texture. It’s common in people with allergies or asthma. Treatment can be tricky, and the extent of the condition can vary from person to person. 
  • PsoriasisThis is a rash that presents itself as red, scaly patches that form over your joints and on your scalp. It may or may not be itchy. Your fingernails can sometimes have symptoms too. 

When Should You See a Doctor?

You should always see a doctor when your rash begins because exanthem can also be caused by bacteria. Unlike viral infections, bacterial infections can, and sometimes need to be, treated with medication. This means the faster you get help, the faster your rash will go away. 

You also need to get medical help if you or your child is showing signs of a skin infection. These include: 

  • High fever
  • Pus from the rash
  • Swelling or pain in your skin
  • Warmth around the rash

Show Sources

SOURCES: 

Cleveland Clinic: “Viral Exanthem Rash.” 

Children’s National: “Viral Exanthems (Rashes).” 

Nemours Children’s Health System: “A to Z: Viral Exanthem.”

Penn Medicine: “Rash.” 

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