Viral Skin Infections

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PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

See also: Molluscum Contagiosum written for patients

There are many viral skin infections. They range from the common to the rare, from the mild to the severe and from those causing just skin infection to those with associated systemic disease.

The following is a brief account of a selection of the important viral skin infections. Many of the diseases mentioned here are covered in greater detail elsewhere and the reader is referred to appropriate links.

This is a widespread erythematous rash sometimes seen in viral infections. It is accompanied by the common symptoms of a viral infection, such as fever, headache and malaise. The rash usually develops rapidly. The appearance varies but commonly takes the form of an erythematous blotchy eruption.

Herpes simplex

See separate article on Human Herpes Viruses.

Herpes zoster

See separate article on Shingles.

Molluscum contagiosum

See separate article on Molluscum Contagiosum


See separate article Viral Warts (excluding Verrucae).


  • Orf is contracted from sheep and goats. It is caused by a parapox virus, which infects mainly young lambs and goats who contract the infection from one another (or possibly from persistence of the virus in the pastures).
  • Human lesions are caused by direct inoculation of infected material. It may occur in farmers, butchers, vets, children who bottle-feed lambs and possibly even children who play in pastures where sheep have grazed.
  • The incubation period is 5 or 6 days.
  • Lesions are usually solitary but multiple lesions do occur. The lesions are small, firm, red or reddish-blue. They form a lump that enlarges to form a flat-topped, blood-tinged pustule or blister. The fully developed lesion is usually 2 or 3 cm in diameter but may be as large as 5 cm.
    Although there appears to be pus under the white skin, incising this will reveal firm, red tissue underneath. The lesion is sometimes irritable during the early stages and is often tender.
  • They usually occur on the fingers, hands or forearms but may be on the face. Red lymph lines may occur on the medial side of the elbow up to the axilla.
  • There may be a mild fever.
  • Allergy to the virus may produce erythema nodosum 10-14 days later.
  • The lesion may be covered to prevent spread, although human-to-human transmission is rare.
  • It resolves spontaneously in 3-6 weeks.
  • A vaccine has been developed to control the infection in sheep.

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There are a number of viral infections that may cause a rash - most of them typically in childhood. Examples include:

Hand, foot and mouth disease

See separate article on Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease.

Crosti-Gianotti syndrome

  • This is a response of the skin to viral infection in which there is a papular rash which lasts for several weeks.
  • Other names include papulovesicular acrodermatitis of childhood, papular acrodermatitis of childhood and acrodermatitis papulosa infantum.
  • Causes of the Crosti-Gianotti syndrome include:
  • It affects children aged between 6 and 12 months. There may be clusters and a preceding upper respiratory tract infection is not uncommon.
  • A profuse eruption of dull red spots develops over 3 or 4 days. They appear first on the thighs and buttocks, then on the outer aspects of the arms and finally on the face, often in an asymmetrical pattern. Diagnostic criteria are yet to be firmly established.[2]
  • The spots are 5-10 mm in diameter and a deep red colour. Later they often look purple, especially on the legs, due to leakage of blood from the capillaries. They may develop fluid-filled blisters.

Kaposi's sarcoma

See separate article on Kaposi's Sarcoma.

Sport increases the risk of transmission of dermatological infections generally. A number of features may predispose to transmission:

  • There may be direct skin-to-skin contact (as in rugby, wrestling on other contact sports).
  • Profuse sweating may cause maceration of skin and provide a portal of entry.
  • Sharing wet areas predisposes to transfer of infection from feet. These include showers and swimming pools. Bare but dry feet, as in judo, other oriental martial arts and gymnastics, are associated with a lower risk of transmission.

Herpes gladiatorum[3] 

  • The name implies association with martial arts. In association with rugby it is called 'scrum pox'. In a study of American college wrestlers 7.6% were reported to have had a herpes skin infection in the preceding 12 months.
  • Transmission is primarily by direct skin-to-skin contact and abrasions may facilitate a portal of entry. The majority of lesions occur on the head or face, followed by the trunk and extremities.
  • A prodromal itching or burning sensation is followed by clustered vesicles on an erythematous base which heal with crusts over about 1 to 2 weeks. Less often, headache, malaise, sore throat and fever may be reported.
  • Recurrent episodes may follow the initial infection.
  • Because of its unusual location, herpes gladiatorum any be confused with impetigo, varicella, staphylococcal furunculosis, or allergic or irritant contact dermatitis.
  • Accurate diagnosis requires viral immunofluorescence and cultures should be obtained by gently breaking an intact vesicle and firmly rubbing the swab tip across the base of the erosion.
  • Treatment of herpes gladiatorum is with oral aciclovir or similar agents and is most effective if commenced at the first symptoms of an outbreak. Topical aciclovir is probably less effective. Any secondary infection should also be treated.
  • The virus can survive for hours to days outside the host if conditions are appropriate. Hence, all contaminated surfaces should be cleaned with antiseptic solution. In the vesicular phase and until the crusts have separated, patients should avoid sports which could involve physical contact.
  • Herpes simplex acquired in sport is often associated with constitutional symptoms.[4] 

Viral skin infections tend to be much more aggressive and virulent if the immune system, especially the T-cell system, is inadequate. The classical example is in HIV and skin disease but unusual and gross viral infections of the skin may occur in any condition in which immunity is impaired.

Further reading & references

  1. Orf, Public Health England
  2. Chuh AA; Diagnostic criteria for Gianotti-Crosti syndrome: a prospective case-control study for validity assessment. Cutis. 2001 Sep;68(3):207-13.
  3. Johnson R; Herpes gladiatorum and other skin diseases. Clin Sports Med. 2004 Jul;23(3):473-84, x.
  4. Alamri YA; Herpes rugbiorum: a review on scrum pox and rugby player guidelines. N Z Med J. 2011 Jul 8;124(1338):96-9.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Richard Draper
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Prof Cathy Jackson
Document ID:
1039 (v24)
Last Checked:
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