Three Rashes You Should Not Ignore

by Anne Windermere Patient Advocate

It is a common experience to get an unexplained rash. Sometimes such rashes go away before you have even had the chance to make an appointment to see a doctor. Rashes greatly vary as to how long they persist, their cause, and how severe the symptoms will be. And while most rashes pose little risk to our overall health, there are types of rashes which indicate a serious underlying medical condition. If left unchecked and untreated, these rashes can prove to have fatal consequences. If you develop an unexplained rash, the best thing to do is to get it checked out by a doctor or dermatologist.

The following illnesses cause rashes that require immediate attention from a medical professional.

1. Cutaneous T-cell lymphoma (CTCL):

Our Doctor Berman wrote about how one type of persistent rash may actually be a form of cancer. Instead of a mole or growth, this cancer of the skin presents as a nonspecific rash which appears around the lower trunk and buttocks. Sometimes it is misdiagnosed as eczema as the affected area can be dry and scaly. It can also be mistaken for a fungus infection or psoriasis. Sometimes this type of rash may itch but not in all cases. In some cases the rash will persist through years of misdiagnosis.

In time, some people develop tumors which look like red raised lumps. These lumps may become ulcerated. At the tumor stage, the cancer may also have affected the lymph nodes. It is estimated that in about 10% of cases, CTCL can progress to the lymph nodes and internal organs.

Sézary syndrome (SS) is the leukemic variant of CTCL and is sometimes called "the red man syndrome" because of the bright red appearance of the skin. In this case T-cell lymphoma affects the skin of the entire body. The skin is red, painful, thickened and swollen. The skin may itch and the top layer of skin may peel away. At this stage abnormal T-cells are also found in the blood and cancerous cells can invade vital organs such as the lungs, heart, and liver.

The good news about cutaneous T-cell lymphoma is that it is rare and seldom progresses to more advanced stages. CTCL is considered to be a low-grade lymphoma which means it usually develops very slowly over years. Yet it is not something you should ignore as there is a chance it can progress into something more serious.

If you want to see what the skin looks like if you have CTCL, The New Zealand Dermatological Society has images of the various types and stages of lymphomas.

For more information about Cutaneous T-cell lymphoma please visit the Cutaneous Lymphoma Foundation web site.

2. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever:

This tick borne illness can be frightening because many people ignore the symptoms until it develops into a life threatening disease. The symptoms are varied but usually begin with fever, nausea, vomiting, severe headache, muscle pain, and lack of appetite. A spotted (petechial) rash may develop 2-6 days later but for some people, the rash does not appear at all. It is estimated that as many as 10% to 15% of patients may never develop a rash.

The rash starts off as small, flat, pink, non-itchy spots on the wrists, forearms, and ankles. If you press on these spots, they turn pale and will become raised on the skin. The rash can spread to the palms of the hands and soles of the feet in some cases and then to the arms, legs, and trunk of the body.

In addition to the spotted rash, other later symptoms may include abdominal pain, joint pain, and diarrhea. If left untreated, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever can lead to gangrene or even death. The mortality rate for this disease ranges from 5%-25%. Early treatment with antibiotics is critical so that the disease does not advance.

Here is an image of what the Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever rash look like from the Dermatology Image Atlas web site.

For more information about how to prevent getting a tick borne disease or illness please read the following My Skin Care Connection articles:

3. Staphylococcal toxic shock syndrome:

Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) gained public attention some years ago with stories of women's deaths attributed to infections arising from using high absorbency tampons which have since been removed from the market. But this bacterial infection can also occur in association with barrier birth control methods such as the contraceptive sponge and diaphragm.

The main cause of TSS is a strain of staph, the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus. So either sex is susceptible for toxic shock syndrome if they have any type of staph infection, including pneumonia, abscess, or wound infection.

The symptoms of staphylococcal toxic shock syndrome may come on suddenly and can include vomiting, high fever, low blood pressure, a feeling of lightheadedness, headache, sore throat, muscle aches and pains and watery diarrhea.

The rash of toxic shock syndrome looks like sunburn which will result in the peeling of the skin one to two weeks after the initial onset of the rash. The palms of the hands and the soles of the feet are particularly affected. Here is an image from Skinsight of how toxic shock syndrome can affect the skin on the palms of the hand.

Other symptoms may include bloodshot eyes and redness under the eyelids or inside the mouth. Broken blood vessels may also appear on the skin. Neurological changes such as confusion and seizures may also occur as the disease progresses.

Toxic shock syndrome, although rare, can be very deadly. According to The National Institutes of Health, TSS can cause organ failure and death in up to 50% of cases.

This is a circmstance where your life may depend upon visiting the emergency room or seeing a doctor promptly following the development of these symptoms. If you develop a fever or rash following surgery or during menstruation and tampon use seek immediate medical attention.

The bottom line is that if you develop any type of rash it is always a good idea to see a doctor to get it checked out. Chances are it will be nothing to worry about, but if your rash happens to be a symptom of a serious illness, you have a good chance of treating it before it becomes life threatening. When in doubt, get it checked out

Anne Windermere
Meet Our Writer
Anne Windermere

These articles were written by a longtime HealthCentral community member who shared valuable insights from her experience living with multiple chronic health conditions. She used the pen name "Merely Me."