Peeling Skin

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What is peeling skin?

Peeling skin (desquamation) is the loss or shedding of the outer layer of your skin (epidermis). Peeling skin can be caused by direct damage to the skin or by a wide variety of mild to serious diseases, disorders and conditions. Peeling skin can affect a small area of the skin or the full body and can occur in all age groups and populations. Depending on the cause of peeling skin, it may go away with over-the-counter (OTC) creams or lotions, or it may require treatment of an underlying disease, disorder or condition.

Because of the range of possible causes of peeling skin, a correct diagnosis of the underlying disease, disorder or condition is very important. The goal of the clinical evaluation is to identify the root cause for peeling skin. Contact your health care provider for a physical exam.

Peeling skin that is associated with confusion, change in consciousness, blisters or sores, fever, diarrhea, vomiting, skin pain, or facial swelling can indicate a serious, life-threatening condition, such as toxic shock syndrome or Stevens-Johnson syndrome. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have peeling skin with any of these symptoms.

Seek prompt medical care if your peeling skin is unexplained, persistent, or causes you concern.

What other symptoms might occur with peeling skin?

Peeling skin may be accompanied by other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Other symptoms may affect the digestive tract, respiratory system, nervous system, reproductive system, cardiovascular system, immune system, or integumentary system (skin and associated tissues).

Skin symptoms that may occur along with peeling skin

Peeling skin may accompany other symptoms affecting the skin including:

  • Bleeding

  • Blistering

  • Burning

  • Dryness

  • Inflammation

  • Irritation

  • Itching

  • Rash

  • Redness

  • Scaling

  • Swelling

  • Thickening

  • Warmth

    Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

    In some cases, peeling skin may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition, such as toxic shock syndrome or Stevens-Johnson syndrome that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have peeling skin associated with any of these symptoms:

    What causes peeling skin?

    Many different diseases, disorders and conditions can lead to peeling skin. Peeling skin can be a sign of allergies, inflammation, infection, or skin damage. More serious causes include severe allergic reactions, drug reactions, and infections.

    Allergic causes of peeling skin

    Drug, animal, food, and other environmental allergens can lead to peeling skin including:

    Autoimmune or inflammatory causes of peeling skin

    Autoimmune and inflammatory causes of peeling skin include:

    Infectious causes of peeling skin

    Peeling skin may arise from infectious diseases, such as:

    • Scarlet fever

    • Staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome

    • Tinea infections (Athlete’s foot, jock itch, ringworm)

    • Toxic-shock syndrome (late)

    Other causes of peeling skin

    Various other causes of peeling skin include:

    • Certain acne treatments, such as those containing retinol or benzoyl peroxide

    • Chemical peels or use of facial creams containing retinol to reduce aging

    • Harsh soaps and detergents that can cause drying of the skin

    • Peeling skin syndrome (rare genetic disorder)

    • Side effects of some drugs and vitamins

    • Skin irritation or damage

    • Some types of cancer treatments

    • Sunburn

    • Vitamin deficiencies or toxicities

    Serious or life-threatening causes of peeling skin

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

    • Cutaneous T-cell lymphoma (type of blood cancer that affects the skin)

    • Skin cancer

    • Stevens-Johnson syndrome (erythema multiforme major, a skin disorder caused by serious infection or allergic reaction)

    • Toxic epidermal necrolysis (severe reaction likely caused by a drug reaction)

    • Toxic shock syndrome

    Questions for diagnosing the cause of peeling skin

    To diagnose the underlying cause of peeling skin, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your symptoms. You can best help your health care practitioner in diagnosing the underlying cause of your peeling skin by providing complete answers to these questions:

    • Are the palms of your hands or the soles of your feet peeling?

    • Did you have any type of illness before the peeling started?

    • Does the peeling involve mucous membranes in your eyes, nose, mouth, genitals or anus?

    • Has your skin been exposed to sun or heat for long periods of time? Have you recently been sunburned?

    • Have you been in recent contact with any unusual or new substances or environments, such as poison ivy, new medications, or food?

    • How long has your skin been peeling?

    • How severe is the peeling? Are small or large pieces of skin peeling off?

    • Provide your full medical history, including all medical conditions, surgeries and treatments, family history, and a complete list of the medications and dietary supplements that you take.

    • What other symptoms are you having?

    • Where is your skin peeling? All over? Or in a specific area?

    What are the potential complications of peeling skin?

    Complications of peeling skin depend on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Identifying and treating the underlying cause of peeling skin is important to minimize any potential complications. In some cases, peeling skin itself can also lead to complications, especially if it leads to a breakdown of the skin. Complications include:

    • Bacterial or fungal infection of the skin

    • Cellulitis (an infection of the skin and surrounding tissues caused by a growing bacterial or fungal infection)

    • Open sores and lesions

    • Permanent change in skin texture or scarring

    • Permanent skin discoloration

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    Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
    Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 21
    1. Cutaneous T-cell lymphoma facts. The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. http://www.lls.org/#/resourcecenter/freeeducationmaterials/lymphoma/cutaneoustcell.
    2. Erythema multiforme. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000851.htm.
    3. Garg K, Singh D, Mishra D. Peeling skin syndrome: current status. Dermatol Online J. 2010;16(3):10.
    4. General information about skin cancer. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/skin/patient/.
    5. What is Kawasaki disease? Kawasaki Disease Foundation. http://www.kdfoundation.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=112&Itemid=31.
    6. Psoriasis.  National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Psoriasis/psoriasis_ff.asp.
    7. Tinea infections. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/tineainfections.html#cat5.
    8. Toxic shock syndrome. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000653.htm.
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