Red Dots on Skin: Causes and Treatments

Red Dots on Skin: Causes and Treatments


You may see red dots appear on your skin for various reasons. Acne, autoimmune conditions, and viruses are common causes.

Depending on what is causing your red dots, they may stick around temporarily or pop up consistently on your skin. Determining the cause of your red dots helps your healthcare provider know how to treat red dots correctly without worsening symptoms.

Acne vulgaris is the most common cause of red dots. Around 85% of people between the ages of 12-24 experience a minor case of acne that may include red dots on their skin.

A healthcare provider will first identify the underlying cause of the red dots on your skin to determine the best course of treatment. There are several methods for addressing red dots on your skin.

Red dots on the skin can vary in size, appearance, and location on your body. Symptoms may vary depending on the underlying cause. Not all red spots appear bright red. Some may show up in darker hues on dark skin tones.

Shingles or chickenpox (varicella-zoster virus) may also cause red spots, scabs, or blisters on your chest, back, and face. Psoriasis can also cause red skin spots that may appear in darker shades or purple on darker skin tones.

Depending on the cause, skin breakouts can be temporary (acute) or persist for weeks or more (chronic). Chronic skin diseases, such as eczema and psoriasis, have periods of breakouts and remission (when symptoms go away). One in 10 people gets red dots on their skin as a symptom of eczema, a chronic skin condition that causes dry patches.

Alongside the red dots, additional symptoms can include itching (pruritis), swelling, and scaliness.

Red dots on your skin can arise for many reasons—even from something like getting bitten by mosquitos, chiggers, or flies. Many health conditions can cause red dots to form on the skin, as well. Depending on the reason, the red dots can appear temporarily (flare-up) and go through periods of remission (when red dots on your skin go away).

Acne Vulgaris

The most common cause of red dots on the skin is acne. Teenagers are more likely to see scarring from severe acne because of chemical changes happening during puberty.

When your pores get clogged, pimples can form. Although whiteheads and blackheads are not red dots, they can form at the same time as red dots on your skin and cause scarring on the skin. All red spots on your skin may not appear the same.

Red dots on the skin associated with acne can appear on your face, back, or anywhere else on your body. Petechiae, spots caused by bleeding under the skin, can form anywhere on your body, including your arms, legs, and mouth. Petechiae and purpura are clusters of small, red, or purple dots.

Injury

Injury or excessive heat can cause red dots on your skin. Trauma on your skin from accidental cuts or deep scratches may cause blood to fill in clusters of spots on your skin (petechia and purpura). Purpura occurs when small blood vessels leak under the skin, causing dark spots. Purpura are slightly larger than petechia spots.

Cherry Angioma

Cherry angiomas are generally painless, red-orange, flat spots on your skin made of blood vessels. They are more likely to appear in adults over the age of 75. Typically, no symptoms occur with cherry angiomas, but they may bleed if aggravated. Cherry angiomas appear on the arms, legs, and scalp.

Autoimmune Disorders

Skin conditions caused by a weakened immune system can cause red dots on your skin. These autoimmune disorders include:

  • Eczema (atopic dermatitis): This can cause recurring patches of red dots or purple patches that can sting and cause itchiness and flakiness. Children under 5 have the highest risk of eczema breakouts.
  • Guttate psoriasis: When small red dots appear on your torso or limbs. Symptoms of guttate psoriasis often appear after an upper respiratory infection.
  • Lichen planus: This autoimmune skin disorder causes itchy red or purple bumps (papules), which can form into plaques. Most often seen on ankles, wrists, or your lower back, lichen planus can be triggered by certain medications and infections.

Irritants and Allergies

Red dots on your skin can be due to exposure to environmental irritants or allergic reactions.

If your skin comes into contact with fabrics or skincare products that irritate your skin, you may experience clusters of bumps and itchy rashes, known as contact dermatitis.

You may also get hives—raised, itchy rashes with red or skin-colored welts. Hives can be triggered by an allergic reaction, certain foods, stress, medications, or infections. Certain medications can cause rashes, blisters, and other red dots to form as an allergic reaction.

Exposure to too much heat can cause heat rash (miliaria) which can cause small clusters of red dots. Your swear glands can be blocked and cause itchiness and roughness on the surface of your skin. Miliaria most often appears on areas of the skin that fold over, like your armpits, where your arm bends, and your groin.

Infections

Certain viral, bacterial, and fungal infections cause red dots on the skin. Infections that may cause red dots to appear on your skin include:

  • Varicella-zoster virus: In adults, the varicella-zoster virus can activate, leading to clusters of red dots, which can open and turn into scabs on the skin. When dormant, the virus can cause shingles.
  • Cellulitis: This infection around hair follicles causes clusters of red, painful dots. Cellulitis can become an emergency if bacteria or fungi get through the skin to the bloodstream.  
  • Ringworm: This fungal skin infection causes red circles or patches on your skin. Ringworm often affects the scalp (tinea capitis) but can be found on other parts of your body like the groin (jock itch) and feet (athlete’s foot).
  • Impetigo: This skin infection is caused by Streptococcus A or Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. It causes red sores—most often in the mouth, nose, or arms—that can burst and leak fluid over time.

Less Common Causes

Additional causes of red dots on the skin include:

  • Scabies: When a mite (a tiny microorganism) burrows into the skin, you can get itchy spots on your fingers and in the folds of your skin. Scabies is a contagious condition that can spread through skin-to-skin contact.
  • Pityriasis rosea: This harmless condition causes red dots to form on your skin, often the abdomen or back. Pityriasis rosea most commonly affects adolescents and young adults. These rashes usually go away on their own.
  • Hand, foot, and mouth disease: This viral infection causes red sores and rashes on the hand, foot, and mouth. The contagious infection also causes fever and sore throat.

Your primary care provider may refer you to a dermatologist (a doctor specializing in skin conditions) or an allergist (a doctor specializing in allergies and immunology). A healthcare provider will likely first ask about your medical history and current health conditions.

From there, your healthcare provider may examine the areas where the red dots appear on your skin. They may also use blood tests or skin biopsy (a clinical evaluation of a sample of skin) to make a diagnosis.

It’s important to know when to seek medical care for your symptoms. Call your healthcare provider if symptoms persist longer than two weeks after home treatment. If you have a fever, fatigue, or swelling on your skin, this may be a sign of a more serious underlying condition.

Because red dots on your skin can be signs of serious allergic reactions, seek emergency medical attention if you experience:

  • Breathing difficulties
  • Fainting
  • Tightness in your throat
  • Severe swelling, especially in the tongue or face
  • Wheezing
  • Gasping

Generally, treatment aims to get rid of red dots on your skin in any affected areas and prevent them from returning. Dots or rashes from skin conditions may improve with dedicated therapy, depending on what condition is causing your breakouts. Anything from home management techniques to medications or procedures may help with red dots on your skin.

Home Management

In many cases, home management alone is enough to treat your symptoms. Methods to try at home to reduce the appearance of rashes or spots include the following:

  • Thoroughly wash affected areas with soap and water
  • Apply cool compresses
  • Soak skin in oatmeal to relieve itching
  • Try over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, such as Motrin (ibuprofen) or Tylenol (acetaminophen)
  • Use OTC topical corticosteroids, such as hydrocortisone cream
  • Use OTC antihistamines, including Benadryl (diphenhydramine) or Claritin (loratadine)
  • Use emollients and moisturizing creams, such as calamine lotion

Medications

If home treatments do little to alleviate symptoms, your healthcare provider may consider prescribing you a cream or oral prescription. Medications that a healthcare provider may prescribe include:

  • Corticosteroids: Creams like Diprolene (betamethasone) and Kenalog (triamcinolone acetonide) relieve itching, swelling, and other symptoms associated with the spots on your skin.
  • Calcineurin inhibitors (CNIs): Protopic (tacrolimus) and Elidel (pimecrolimus) are topical medications that treat dry skin and symptoms of eczema. 
  • Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitors (jakinibs): Topical JAK inhibitors like Opzelura (ruxolitinib) are prescribed to treat atopic dermatitis, a type of eczema. Oral forms like Rinvoq (upadacitinib) treat more severe cases.
  • Phosphodiesterase 4 (PDE-4) inhibitors: An alternative to topical corticosteroids, PDE-4 inhibitors, such as Eucrisa (crisaborole), treat mild-to-moderate cases of eczema or rash.
  • Biologics: Injections of medications like Dupixent (dupilumab) treat more advanced cases of red dots on your skin caused by allergic reactions and other causes.

Phototherapy

Phototherapy is a treatment that can remove red dots on your skin caused by psoriasis, eczema, or other chronic conditions.

Using a hand-held device, a healthcare provider directs ultraviolet B (UVB), ultraviolet A1 (UVA1), or psoralen plus UV A (PUVA) rays to prevent cell overgrowth. mPUVA treatment is a combined therapy with a medication that increases skin sensitivity to light.

Depending on their cause, there may be ways to prevent red dots or keep them from returning. This typically involves making lifestyle changes, managing underlying conditions, and incorporating a regular skincare routine.

Here are some prevention tips:

  • Clean your skin gently, using mild soaps or cleaners in warm (not hot) water
  • Use hypoallergenic, fragrance-free soaps, detergents, and shampoos
  • Wear comfortable, breathable cotton clothing
  • Maintain a comfortable temperature at home and using a humidifier to prevent dry air
  • Protect your skin from sun exposure by wearing UV-protective sunscreens
  • Relieve itchiness with cold compresses or ointments instead of scratching
  • Get vaccinated for shingles
  • Manage stress with mindfulness, meditation, or other relaxing activities                               

If left untreated, conditions like eczema and psoriasis can lead to other health complications. Complications can co-occur with red dots on your skin, especially if you have a weakened immune system or take certain medications. If you have psoriasis, complications may include developing cellulitis or arthritis.

Depending on the cause, red dots on your skin may leave scars behind in affected areas—such is the case with acne. Having clusters of red dots on your skin can also take a mental toll. Reach out to your healthcare provider for assistance if you notice it affecting your confidence or causing feelings of depression or anxiety.

Many conditions can cause red dots on your skin. Red dots may appear more purple on darker skin tones and can show up in clusters or pop up in individual spots with a variety of textures. They may be due to injury, heat, allergies, infections, and other health conditions.

Proper diagnosis is important to know how to treat the red dots on your skin. Treatment may vary from at-home ointments and prescribed medicine to phototherapy. Speak with your healthcare provider if having red dots on your skin is affecting your mental health.

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