Viral Skin Infections

Authored by Dr Oliver Starr, 23 Jul 2017

Patient is a certified member of
The Information Standard

Reviewed by:
Prof Cathy Jackson, 23 Jul 2017

Viral skin infections are a wide group of conditions. They can be a reaction to a virus inside your body, or they can be an actual infection of your skin. They range from the entirely harmless, to the quite serious (but not usually life-threatening). Some are contagious; others you can touch without catching.

I'm sure you're used to your doctor saying: 'It's just a virus!' Viruses are tiny germs. You can't see them with the naked eye. They are all around us and are usually harmless (the common cold is caused by viruses, for example). On the other hand, some can be really bad for you (like HIV). Read about the causes of viral skin conditions.

This leaflet is about how viruses can affect your skin. It will cover the common things that you are likely to see in you and your children.

There are some viral skin infections that you catch by touching someone else. Chickenpox is a common example (although you can also catch chickenpox through the air).  Molluscum contagiosum and herpes simplex are probably the other most common examples we see in the UK. In the farming community there is something called 'orf'. Find out more about the causes of viral skin infections.

Back in the 1970s, GPs in the UK used to see measles and german measles: these are viral infection inside your body, but which make a rash come out all over your skin. But nowadays they are practically unheard of in the UK. They are still common in the developing world though. More common examples are pityriasis rosea and hand, foot and mouth disease. Discover more about these causes of viral skin infections.

This is probably the most common type of viral skin condition, referred to sometimes as a 'reactive viral rash'. Family doctors (GPs) see this all the time. It can come out when your child has a high temperature (fever), or even a couple of days after having an illness. It is pretty harmless and not passed on by physical contact (contagious). Learn more about the symptoms of a viral rash.

Almost always the diagnosis is made by what you tell the doctor and by what your skin looks like.  Chicken pox, for example, has a typical appearance that doctors can recognise. Occasionally it might be necessary to have a blood test, for measles or mumps for example, but this is unusual. Read more about the diagnosis of viral skin conditions.

Thankfully almost all viral skin conditions get better by themselves. Sometimes no treatment at all is needed; sometimes a lotion can be used to soothe your skin (like calamine lotion in chickenpox). Certain skin conditions caused by herpes simplex can be treated with antiviral medicines that are prescribed by a doctor. Learn more about the treatment of viral skin conditions.

Time is usually the best healer here. Chickenpox goes away in a few weeks for example. Other viral skin conditions take a while: pityriasis rosea and molluscum contagiosum can take months to go away. However, almost all viral skin conditions do fade away. Once you have had a viral skin condition, it usually does not come back (the exception being herpes simplex).  Read more about the outlook (prognosis) of viral skin conditions.

Occasionally a rash can be a sign of serious illness. The best sign that someone is unwell with a rash is if they feel ill or, in the case of a baby or someone who can't talk, if they look ill.  Rare but life-threatening infections like meningococcal septicaemia can cause a rash but by then the person will also be feeling very ill. 

In general, seek medical advice if you or your child have a rash but also feel or look ill.

Further reading and references

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