When a Rash Isn’t Just a Rash

Skin changes can indicate more serious internal disease

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Every body develops a rash from time to time. But odd changes to the skin can also be a symptom of more serious health issues going on inside the body.

The American Academy of Dermatology has released a set of guidelines for people to reference in case a skin irritation could indicate something serious going on inside the body.

A board-certified dermatologist said that noticing skin changes might help with early diagnosis of serious health conditions.

"Talk to a dermatologist about any skin changes."

Cindy Owen, MD, professor of dermatology at the University of Louisville in Kentucky and board certified dermatologist, drew up a set of guidelines to check out in the event of a skin irritation.

There is no reason to panic when a strange skin condition appears, but the presence of the following may mean it’s time to visit the doctor:

  • A new rash that brings with it a fever, joint pain, muscle aches or other unusual symptoms could be a sign of an infection or other internal problem. For example, rashes that show up on the tops of the feet and lower legs, but don’t go away after using steroid or antifungal creams have been found in patients with hepatitis C infections.
  • Drug Reaction with Eosinophilia and Systemic Symptoms, otherwise known as DRESS Syndrome, can happen after starting a new medication. The reaction may happen right after starting the medication. Or a reaction may not happen until the medication has had a few weeks or months to build up in the system. Developing a rash, swelling, fever or sick feelings from a new medication is serious and could indicate inflammation of vital organs like the liver, heart or lungs.
  • The inflammatory muscle disease dermatomyositis and several different types of cancers have been known to cause skin changes. Go to the doctor for any purple shaded rashes on the eyelids or areas exposed to sunlight, scaly bumps on the knuckles, visible blood vessels around the fingernails and changes in the cuticles. 
  • New growths on the skin may be a sign of cancer or other internal diseases.
  • Yellow or waxy bumps on the arms, legs or trunk may be a sign of diabetes.
  • Yellowing skin may be a sign of liver trouble.
  • Darkening in the creases of the skin, around joints or on old scars may be a sign of adrenal trouble or early diabetes.
  • In patients with diabetes, a bronze color change in the skin may be a sign of iron trouble in the metabolism.
  • Softening, swelling or hardening of the skin may be a sign of autoimmune trouble.

Dr. Owen recommended people go to a board certified dermatologist for any unexplained changes in the skin.

These recommendations were published in March on the American Academy of Dermatology website.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
March 8, 2013
Last Updated:
August 15, 2013