Regardless of your skin type, chances are you’ve experienced red itchy bumps bumps at one time or another. Although they can be caused by many different things, they’re basically a universal sign that your skin is irritated.
In most cases, they can be treated at home or will just go away with time. So, if your bumps aren’t affecting your daily life, they’re not covering your whole body, and you’re not feeling sick otherwise, chances are they’re nothing to worry about, Rebecca Kazin, M.D., dermatologist and associate director at the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery, tells SELF.
Sometimes, treating itchy, red bumps with over-the-counter treatments like hydrocortisone cream are enough to make them go away. But if the itchy, red bumps last for over two weeks, or they go away and come back, it’s a good idea to visit your dermatologist. You might need a stronger, more targeted medication to clear things up.
In the meantime, it’s important to consider the cause of your itchy, red bumps. And if they’re on your face, it’s probably a good idea to cut back on your skin-care routine, keeping just the essential gentle cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen. Keep reading to find out the top 10 causes of itchy, red bumps, plus how you can get some (much-needed) relief.
1. Contact dermatitis
This is a type of skin rash that happens when you touch a certain chemical or substance that you’re sensitive to that may be lurking in cosmetics, skin care, hair care, and even your laundry detergent. Although it’s technically possible to have a reaction to pretty much anything in these products, some ingredients are known to cause more issues than others.
There are actually two types of contact dermatitis—allergic and irritant—although they cause basically the same symptoms (burning, itching, redness).
“In some cases, when the skin comes in contact with a chemical topically, it can either lead to direct irritation or elicit an immune response causing an allergic reaction,” Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City tells SELF.
Allergic contact dermatitis happens when your skin comes into contact with a substance that it’s actually allergic to. If your dermatitis is due to an allergy, you might not have a reaction the first time you use the substance. But, after a few uses, your skin becomes sensitized to it and you react. If it’s a true allergic reaction like this, you might notice some swelling and redness that goes beyond the area that you applied the product, SELF explained previously.
You can be allergic to basically anything in cosmetics and skin-care products, but some common allergens include botanical extracts, essential oils, fragrances, and dyes. Sometimes, being exposed to sunlight or sweating can trigger your reaction to a compound that you’re allergic to, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) explains, which makes it seem like the reaction came out of nowhere.
Irritant contact dermatitis doesn’t involve an actual allergic response, but it can still be uncomfortable. In this case, your skin is getting irritated for one reason or another due to an ingredient in the product. You’re more likely to get this type of contact dermatitis shortly after using a product for the first time. It’s not always easy to predict what types of products will cause this type of reaction, but some common culprits include preservatives, strong acids in skin-care products, fragrances and dyes.
The treatment for contact dermatitis depends on its severity and the root cause. If you know what caused the reaction, obviously stop using it. Often just avoiding the trigger can clear the reaction, the AAD says. While you wait for it to heal, you should wash your skin with cool water to get the product off and soothe the skin. If the reaction is on your face, stick to a basic skin-care routine composed of gentle products for a few days or weeks. You can also take an over-the-counter oral allergy medication and use an over-the-counter 1 percent hydrocortisone product, both of which will help reduce any itchiness.
But if you’re not sure what caused it or whether or not you might have allergy, you should check in with a dermatologist. They can do a patch test to figure out what you might be allergic to, and they can help you sort through your products, environmental factors, and lifestyle habits that could be causing the problem.
2. Allergic reactions to food or medicine
Eating a food or medicine you’re allergic to can cause you to break out in hives (also called urticaria), an itchy red rash. It can appear as clusters of small, raised red or pink bumps or as larger welts in clusters or on their own, the AAD says.
In most cases, hives can be treated with antihistamines or corticosteroids to calm the reaction. But, in some cases, the swelling associated with hives occurs deeper in the skin, a condition called angioedema, which can be more dangerous. If you develop angioedema, you may need to use medication like an EpiPen to relieve the reaction quickly or seek medical attention.
For most people, hives go away within a day or so. But some people get hives frequently, a condition called chronic urticaria. To treat that condition, your dermatologist may prescribe other medications.
If you know what caused the reaction, it’s important to avoid the trigger to avoid future reactions, which can be severe and even life-threatening. But if you’re not sure what caused the reaction, you should check in with a dermatologist to figure it out.
Rosacea is a skin condition that can cause many irritating symptoms, most commonly a red flushing reaction on the face and/or acne-like bumps. Your face might feel hot when flushed, and because rosacea makes your face more sensitive, you might also feel itchy or stinging frequently.
These symptoms may be triggered by specific ingredients in products (like preservatives or fragrances), but they can also be triggered by lifestyle habits and environmental factors. That includes eating certain foods (e.g. spicy foods), drinking alcohol, sun exposure, sweating and heat.
If you notice your face getting hot or flushed frequently or you notice bumps on your face that look a lot like acne but don’t respond to acne medication, it’s worth getting checked out by a dermatologist.
4. Keratosis pilaris
Sometimes referred to as “chicken skin” or just KP for short, keratosis pilaris is a common skin condition causes small raised bumps along with patches of rough, dry skin. The bumps, which can be reddish or brown depending on your skin tone, most commonly appear on the backs of the arms and legs and usually aren’t itchy. But if the skin gets too dry or irritated, KP can be itchy and uncomfortable.
Because the bumps aren’t harmful, there’s usually no need to treat KP. You may just need to make sure to keep the skin moisturized so it doesn’t become itchy. But if you do want to try to reduce the appearance of the bumps, you can try products containing exfoliating ingredients like urea or lactic acid.
Wearing clothes that rub you in all the wrong places can cause uncomfortable chafing and itchy, red bumps, Dr. Zeichner says. “Just that friction factor of the fabric” can be extremely irritating, Dr. Kazin says.
It often happens if you’re working out and your clothes start to slide against your sweaty skin—runners, in particular, are probably all too familiar with this.
If you notice itchy, red bumps after hitting the gym, check if it falls where the seams of your athletic wear lies. Cotton is typically not irritating, but bulky, scratchy materials like wool are—especially around your neck.
6. Bug bites
Bug bites typically show up as one or a few distinct red bumps, but many people can develop a generalized allergic reaction after getting bit by certain bugs. This is commonly seen with mosquito bites, and presents as itchy, red bumps around the area you were bit.
For instance, if you wake up with itchy red bites you can’t explain, it could be a sign you have bed bugs. These bites typically appear on skin that’s exposed while you’re sleeping, like the arms, shoulders, neck, and face. They can also cause an itchy red rash in people who are sensitive.
If you think you could have a tick bite, look for the telltale target-like appearance and see a doctor, as it could develop into Lyme disease. “You can treat normal bug bites on your own with over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream,” Dr. Kazin says. But if it looks infected, if it’s not going away, or if it’s leaking pus, you should see a doctor.
7. Heat rash
Heat rash goes by a few different names (miliaria, prickly heat) and can cause a variety of symptoms. It develops when your pores trap sweat in your skin, forming small fluid-filled blisters and bumps, the Mayo Clinic explains. But that’s at the mildest level.
If the condition occurs in deeper layers of skin, it can cause more serious symptoms like red bumps, itching, and prickling sensations. Even more severe symptoms can include inflamed, pus-filled bumps and goose-bump like lesions caused by leaking sweat.
In adults, the rash usually occurs in areas of the skin that are covered—especially during a workout or in a hot, humid environment.
If your symptoms are on the milder end, they may simply go away on their own once your skin is able to cool down. But if your symptoms are more severe and include itchiness, you can try applying an over-the-counter calamine lotion. In even more severe cases, your doctor may prescribe a topical steroid to help calm the skin.
8. Sun allergy
Sun allergy is a general term used to describe several different types of reactions to the sunlight. The most common form of sun allergy is sun poisoning (also referred to as polymorphic light eruption), the Mayo Clinic says.
The condition causes redness, pain, and patches of small itchy, red bumps in response to sun exposure. The bumps may be blisters or combine into raised patches of red skin. It usually happens on the forearms or other places that have been covered for months and then all of a sudden see the sun. However, the exact symptoms vary widely from person to person, the Mayo Clinic says.
“Sometimes people have been inside all winter and go into the sun and break out in an itchy red rash,” Dr. Kazin says. For some people, their sun sensitivity is genetic. For others it may be triggered by medications or exposure to compounds (like limes) that make them more sensitive to the sun.
For milder cases, staying out of the sun for a few days may be enough to make your symptoms go away. But more severe cases may require over-the-counter or prescription corticosteroid medications. Your doctor may also recommend phototherapy (light therapy) treatments to gradually build up your skin’s tolerance to the sun.
Atopic dermatitis is a type of skin rash that can manifest in several different ways. The most common is eczema, which usually causes red, dry, flaky skin. During an eczema flare, the skin may also be intensely itchy. Eczema patches most commonly occur in the elbow creases and behind the knees.
Eczema is usually a chronic condition, but the symptoms may be better or worse at certain times. It’s more likely to flare up when your skin is exposed to certain triggers, like harsh soaps or detergents. We also know that stress plays a role as does your exposure to allergens, like dust and pollen.
Managing eczema usually requires a few different approaches. First off, identify and avoid your triggers as much as possible. Second, keep your skin moisturized with more occlusive creams and ointments. Finally, make sure you’re working with a dermatologist to see if prescription medications, including things like topical treatments or light therapy, may be helpful for you.
This autoimmune disease can cause itchy, red, scaly, thick patches of skin, SELF explained previously. The patches form as a result of your skin cells growing too fast, essentially, which leads to a buildup of skin cells.
This type of psoriasis—plaque psoriasis—is the most common. But other types can also affect your nails or cause red, itchy bumps filled with pus. Some people with psoriasis also develop psoriatic arthritis, which causes pain and swelling in the joints.
You may be able to manage mild plaque psoriasis at home with over-the-counter moisturizers. But more severe symptoms often require prescription topical medication, light therapy, or injectable medications—especially if symptoms of psoriatic arthritis are present.