Skin Lesion

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What is a skin lesion?

A skin lesion is any change in the normal character of your skin. A skin lesion may occur on any part of your body and cover a tiny or large area. Skin lesions can be singular or multiple, confined to one specific area of your body or distributed widely. Skin lesions include rash, cysts, pus-filled sacs, blisters, swelling, discolorations, bumps, hardening, or any other change in or on your skin. Skin lesions may result from a wide range of causes, as harmless as a small scrape or as serious as skin cancer.

There are many common causes of skin lesions. For example, injury can cause a bruise, scrape or cut. Teenagers may have skin lesions from acne, while aging may bring freckles, moles and discoloration. A number of infectious diseases cause rashes, and allergic reactions may be accompanied by itchy hives or rashes. Skin changes can also occur with chronic conditions, such as diabetes or autoimmune disorders. Skin lesions, such as boils and carbuncles, may also be caused by local infections of the skin or hair follicles.

Skin cancer and precancerous changes in the skin are more serious causes of skin lesions. These lesions most commonly appear on areas of your body that have been exposed to sun, including your face, arms and hands.

Because skin lesions can arise from numerous conditions, which may be harmless or serious, contact your health care provider if you have a new skin lesion that causes you concern or lasts for more than a day or two, or if your child has a skin lesion.

Skin lesions are usually mild, but in some cases they can be a sign of a serious condition. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you have difficulty breathing or feel your throat swelling, experience fainting or loss of consciousness, have small red dots or larger bruises that appear immediately after taking a new medication, or if you or your child develops a rash along with a fever.

Seek prompt medical care if you discover a mole or dark skin lesion that has changed significantly, or if you have a skin lesion that is persistent or causes you concern.

What other symptoms might occur with skin lesion?

Skin lesions may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the skin may also involve other body systems.

Common symptoms that may occur along with skin lesions

Skin lesions often occur along with bacterial or viral infections or when your immune system reacts to an allergen resulting in symptoms including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, skin lesions 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 any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)

  • Change in level of consciousness, such as fainting, confusion, or decreased alertness

  • Rash that develops rapidly after taking a new medication

  • Rash that develops rapidly in association with fever or coughing in a child

  • 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

What causes skin lesion?

Skin lesions have a wide variety of causes. The most common causes of skin lesions are injury, aging, infectious diseases, allergies, and small infections of the skin or hair follicles. Chronic diseases such as diabetes or autoimmune disorders can cause skin lesions. Skin cancer or precancerous changes also appear as skin lesions.

Common causes of skin lesions

Changes in the appearance of the skin can result from common conditions such as:

  • Acne
  • Boils and carbuncles
  • Folliculitis
  • Freckles
  • Nevi (moles) and other benign skin growths
  • Skin tags

Injury-related causes of skin lesions

Skin lesions may be caused by physical injury including:

  • Bruises
  • Burns, including sunburn
  • Excessive exposure to sun or wind
  • Extreme cold
  • Cuts or scrapes
  • Insect bites or stings
  • Keloid (exuberant scar formation)

Age-related causes of skin lesions

Skin lesions may be caused by processes related to aging including:

  • Age spots (often called liver spots, harmless discolorations that appear with advancing age)

  • Easy bruising

  • Fragile skin

  • Xerosis (dry skin)

Illness-related causes of skin lesions

Skin lesions may be caused by another illness including:

  • Bacterial infection, such as scarlet fever, or meningococcal meningitis, a serious condition caused by group A Streptococcus, can cause a skin rash

  • Systemic illness, such as diabetes, can lead to changes in skin color or texture, as well as sores and other lesions due to poor wound healing and poor circulation

  • Viral infection, such as varicella-zoster, can cause skin lesions at many stages of life (chickenpox in children and shingles in adults)

Allergy-related causes of skin lesions

Skin lesions can also be caused by allergies including:

Serious or life-threatening causes of skin lesions

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

  • Serious allergy can result in hives or a rash and may be associated with anaphylaxis and swelling of the mouth or throat

  • Skin cancers and precancerous changes are a cause of skin lesions

  • Infections that may spread throughout the body are often marked by swollen and reddened skin along the lines of veins in a leg or arm

Questions for diagnosing the cause of skin lesions

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

  • When did you first notice the lesions?

  • Did you start any new medications or try any new types of food immediately before the lesion formed?

  • Do you have any other skin lesions?

  • Do you have any other symptoms?

  • Does the lesion itch or burn?

  • Does the lesion have a discharge such as pus?

  • Has the lesion changed in size, shape or color?

  • Have you had similar lesions before?

  • Does anything relieve or worsen the symptoms?

What are the potential complications of skin lesion?

The complications of skin lesions depend on the cause. Direct complications of skin lesions often include permanent changes in the skin, such as a scar. Complications of certain lesions, such as melanoma or a rash accompanying a serious infection, can be serious, even life threatening.

Because some skin lesions can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause 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:

  • Adverse effects of treatment

  • Altered pigmentation

  • Cosmetic disfigurement

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

  • Organ failure or dysfunction

  • Progression of symptoms

  • Scarring

  • Spread of cancer

  • Spread of infection

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 16
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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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  4. Ferri FF (Ed.) Ferri’s Fast Facts in Dermatology. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier, 2011.