Skin Conditions that Look Contagious, but Arent

The Stigma Associated With Skin Conditions

Deanne Robinson, MD, of the Connecticut Dermatology Group in Norwalk, Connecticut, says she often skips wearing gloves when she examines patients, unless they have open sores or are bleeding. “I feel it creates a distance between my patients and myself,” Dr. Robinson says. “There can be a lot of stigma associated with various skin conditions, and I find that showing patients that I am not concerned by touching their skin can help build or strengthen a therapeutic relationship.”

Here are seven skin conditions that may look contagious, but that you can’t catch from someone.

Psoriasis: That Itching Feeling

Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease that causes red patches and itchy scales. It occurs when the body attacks healthy skin cells, causing them to grow and reach the skin’s surface too quickly. A process that should take weeks happens in a matter of days. The body isn’t able to shed the skin cells quickly enough, resulting in the patches.

“Some assume that psoriasis is contagious, especially if it is affecting someone's hands,” Robinson says. “I find it helpful to explain what is at the root of the condition to my patients to help clarify its non-infectious nature.”

When Allergens Brings on Hives

Hives, or welts that are often itchy, come in all shapes and sizes. They are most often the result of an allergy, most commonly a reaction to foods such as nuts, milk, eggs, shellfish, and citrus fruit. They can also be triggered by insect bites and stings, or medication. The hives may appear within minutes after exposure to the allergen or it may take up to two hours. Most hives are easily treated with an antihistamine. If they last longer than a week, it’s time to see a dermatologist.

Facts and Myths About Poison Ivy

“The condition most people mistake as contagious is poison ivy,” Robinson says. Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac all contain urushiol, an oil that causes a blistering rash. Despite what you may have learned in summer camp, the rash doesn’t spread through scratching. Often one patch will appear first and then a second or third might pop up later on a different part of your body; but it hasn’t spread. It’s a result of different rates or times of exposure. “Patients think they have spread the rash themselves by itching or scratching and, thus, think they are contagious to others,” Robinson says.

It can be spread in three ways: direct contact with any part of the plant (leaves, flowers, roots, or stem); contact with something that has touched the plant (urushiol can stick to a pet’s fur, a rake or shovel used outdoors, or a ball, for example); or through airborne urushiol particles that are released if the plant is burned. The American Academy of Dermatologists (AAD) stresses that poison ivy is not spread through touching someone who has the rash, because your skin absorbs the oil quickly. Nor is it possible to contract the rash from coming in contact with fluid from the blisters.

Eczema Triggers to Avoid

Also known as atopic dermatitis, eczema causes red, often itchy, patches on your hands, feet, neck, upper chest, and eyelids, or inside the bend of your elbows and knees. There are many potential triggers for eczema. Hot water can aggravate the condition, so don’t soak in the tub too long and use only warm water. Other triggers include strong detergents, exposure to extreme cold, pet dander, smoking, and stress. The exact cause of eczema is unclear, but it tends to run in families.

Vitiligo: A Problem With Pigment

This condition, which may be an autoimmune disorder, is marked by lighter patches on the skin. It happens when the body attacks cells called melanocytes that produce pigment that gives your skin and hair color. Vitiligo cannot be cured, but some treatments may help restore color to the lighter patches and make the skin look more even. If you have vitiligo, it’s important to wear sunscreen because exposure to sunlight can worsen the condition.

Seeing Red With Rosacea

Rosacea is most often marked by flushing across your nose and cheeks. Doctors aren’t entirely sure what causes it, but it may be your immune system overreacting to a bacterium called bacillus oleronius. People with relatives who have rosacea are more likely to develop it. It tends to affects people who are fair-skinned and have blonde hair and blue eyes. It is also common among people of Celtic or Scandinavian descent.

Pityriasis Rosea: A Mystery Rash

Typically the only symptom of this skin condition is a pink or gray scaly rash. It often starts with one large round or oval patch on your neck, chest, abdomen, back, or thighs, before spreading to other areas in about 14 days. The rash may cause itching that can be severe. It is not known what causes pityriasis rosea. According to the AAD, the condition is not an allergy or caused by bacteria, but it may be related to a virus. In most cases, it will clear up on its own in four to eight weeks.

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