Elbow Rash

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What is elbow rash?

Rash is a symptom that causes the affected area of skin to turn red and blotchy and to swell. A rash may cause spots that are bumpy, scaly, flaky, or filled with pus. Rashes can vary in location, pattern, and extent and may occur in any area of the body. An elbow rash can have a variety of causes, and it may indicate something occurring around the elbow itself or suggest a systemic (body-wide) condition.

Contact dermatitis (skin inflammation) is caused by an adverse reaction to something that touches the skin, including chemicals found in detergent, soap or a fragrance. For example, you may develop a rash on your elbow when wearing a shirt that was washed with a particular detergent or treated with a chemical. Exposure to metal can also cause elbow rash. Other forms of contact dermatitis include exposure to certain plants, such as poison oak or ivy, an animal bite, or an insect sting. Lyme disease is caused by tick bite, which can first appear as a circle with a bull’s-eye pattern, then progress to a rash.

Allergies to food and medications are potentially serious sources of rash. Peanuts, shellfish, strawberries and avocados are just some of the foods that can trigger allergic reactions. These foods may cause mild reactions; however, in some cases, reactions could develop into potentially life-threatening conditions characterized by vomiting, difficulty breathing, and swelling. Allergic purpura is a serious, often life-threatening allergic reaction that can cause a skin rash but can also affect the joints, gastrointestinal tract, and kidneys.

Rashes may also be associated with skin conditions, such as eczema, psoriasis and impetigo. The elbow is a common location for psoriasis eruptions, which cause scaly white spots and inflammation. Some chronic skin conditions may flare up for a time, then resolve. Other causes of rash include autoimmune disorders that occur when the body is attacked by its own immune system, which normally serves to protect it from foreign invaders (antigens). Many viruses that occur during flu season, or those associated with childhood diseases, can produce rash.

Rashes can be caused by an allergic reaction to food, medications, lotions or detergents. These reactions can range from mild to potentially life threatening, especially if swelling and constriction of breathing occurs, which could indicate anaphylaxis. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if a rash is accompanied by any serious symptoms including swelling of the face, swelling and constriction of the throat, difficulty breathing, fainting, change in level of consciousness or alertness, pale skin, or purple rash.

Seek prompt medical care if a rash is persistent and causes you concern.

What other symptoms might occur with elbow rash?

Elbow rash may be accompanied by other symptoms, depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Certain conditions that cause elbow rash may also involve other body systems.

Related localized symptoms that may occur along with elbow rash

Elbow rash may be accompanied by other localized symptoms including:

  • Bruising
  • Itchiness
  • Pus or discharge
  • Redness, warmth or swelling
  • Scale formation
  • Tenderness or pain

Other symptoms that may occur along with elbow rash

Elbow rash may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
In some cases, elbow rash may be a symptom of a life-threatening condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have elbow rash along with other serious symptoms including:

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness

  • Fever and chills

  • Joint pain and stiffness

  • Purple rash

  • Respiratory or breathing problems, such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing or inability to breathe, labored breathing, wheezing, or choking

  • Sudden swelling of the face, lips or tongue

  • Tightness or constriction in the throat

  • Worsening of symptoms despite treatment

What causes elbow rash?

Elbow rash may have many possible causes, including allergens (agents that cause allergies), infections, autoimmune disorders, or other causes such as stress.

Allergic or inflammatory causes of elbow rash

Elbow rash may be caused by contact dermatitis. Common triggers include:

  • Cosmetics, dyes or detergents

  • Industrial chemicals, such as those found in elastic, latex and rubber

  • Metallic substances (various metals, copper, wire)

  • Poison ivy or oak

Other allergic causes of elbow rash include:

  • Eczema (skin disorder causing scaly or blistering rashes that may be caused by allergy)

  • Food allergies (allergic reactions to certain foods)

  • Insect bite allergy such as a bee sting

Infectious causes of elbow rash

Elbow rash can also be caused by infections including:

Autoimmune causes of elbow rash

Elbow rash can also be caused by autoimmune disorders including:

  • Kawasaki disease (rare, serious pediatric disorder characterized by inflammation of blood vessels, high fever, rash, and mucous membrane changes)

  • Psoriasis (thick scaly plaques sitting atop a reddened base)

  • Rheumatoid arthritis (chronic autoimmune disease characterized by joint inflammation)

  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (disorder in which the body attacks its own healthy cells and tissues)

Other causes of elbow rash

Elbow rash can be caused by other factors including:

  • Extreme cold or heat

  • Medications

  • Lichen planus (purplish itchy papules, can develop after trauma)

  • Stress

  • Sunburn

    Serious or life-threatening causes of elbow rash

    In some cases, rash may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. These include:

    • Allergic purpura

    • Anaphylaxis (life-threatening allergic reaction)

    Questions for diagnosing the cause of elbow rash

    To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your rash including:

    • When did the rash begin?

    • Are you taking any medications?

    • Do you have allergies?

    • Does the rash cause any itching or scaling?

    • Do you feel otherwise healthy?

    • Have you tried any new products recently, such as soaps, perfumes or sprays?

    • Have you spent a lot of time outdoors lately?

    What are the potential complications of elbow rash?

    Because elbow rash may be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. For example, infectious diseases, such as mumps or measles, can lead to rare but serious complications, including miscarriage, hearing loss, and serious brain infections, such as encephalitis or meningitis.

    Once the underlying cause of your rash is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

    • Arthritis

    • Cellulitis (infection of the skin)

    • Cognitive difficulties

    • Encephalitis (inflammation and swelling of the brain due to a viral infection or other causes)

    • Meningitis (infection or inflammation of the sac around the brain and spinal cord)

    • Miscarriage or stillbirth

    • Paralysis

    • Permanent hearing loss

    • Secondary infections, which may develop from scratching and related skin trauma

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    Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
    Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 10
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    THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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    3. Southern tick-associated rash illness. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/stari/.
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