COVID toes, rashes: How the coronavirus can affect your skin
If you develop a rash, tell your doctor
A rash may be a sign of COVID-19. A rash can also be a sign of another disease.
If you’re on the lookout for symptoms of COVID-19, you’re likely watching for a dry cough, fever, and shortness of breath. You may also want to check your skin.
While less common, the coronavirus can affect your skin. For some people, this may be the only sign of a coronavirus infection.
Here’s what we know so far about how the coronavirus may affect the skin.
COVID toes can develop at any age
Doctors around the world have noticed that some patients who test positive for the coronavirus develop discolored and swollen toes.
Here’s what dermatologists are seeing.
While COVID toes can appear at any age, children, teenagers, and young adults seem most likely to develop this condition. These young patients are healthy. Many never develop other, more common symptoms of COVID-19, such as a dry cough, fever, and muscle aches. When they do have symptoms of COVID-19, the symptoms tend to be mild.
What you may see with COVID toes: The condition may develop on your toes, fingers, or both. From what we know, it seems that most people develop this only on their toes, which explains the name “COVID toes.”
The swelling and discoloration can begin on one or several toes or fingers, according to Amy Paller, MD, FAAD, who is a board-certified pediatric dermatologist and Chair of Dermatology at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine. At first, you might see a bright red color that gradually turns to purple. COVID toes can also begin with a purplish color.
Symptoms: Many people don’t feel anything and only realize that they have COVID toes when they see the discoloration and swelling on their feet (or hands).
Along with the swelling and discoloration, COVID toes can also cause blisters, itch, or pain. Some people develop painful raised bumps or areas of rough skin.
Others may see a small amount of pus under their skin.
Sometimes, people who have COVID toes have other symptoms of COVID-19.
Treatment for COVID toes: To reduce pain or itching, apply a hydrocortisone cream to the affected area. If this fails to bring relief or symptoms worsen, contact a board-certified dermatologist.
How long COVID toes last: While COVID toes go away without treatment, it’s still too soon to know how long most people have the condition. Dr. Paller says it can last 10 to 14 days. Some patients have COVID toes for months.
In children and teens, the coronavirus can also lead to a rare, serious, and sometimes life-threatening condition called Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C).
Are COVID toes contagious?
Much remains unknown about the coronavirus, including whether you’re contagious when you have COVID toes. If you have any symptoms of COVID-19, contact your doctor. Explain what’s happening and ask if you need testing.
Condition that COVID toes can look like: Chilblains
If you have swollen, discolored toes or fingers, you may have chilblains instead of COVID toes. Chilblains develops when you’re exposed to cold temperatures. People develop chilblains when they stand on a cool, wet ground and get chilled.
Chilblains causes the skin on your toes, other parts of your feet, fingers, or other affected areas to burn and itch. Some people see their skin swell and turn red or dark blue. A severe case of chilblains can cause sores or blisters.
Chilblains differs from frostbite, which occurs when the skin freezes.
Coronavirus rash appears in many ways
Many diseases, such as measles and chickenpox, cause a distinctive rash that helps doctors diagnose a patient. COVID-19 is different. There is no single COVID-19 rash.
What you may see: You can have COVID-19 and never develop a rash. When a patient with COVID-19 does develop a rash, it can look like any of the following:
Blisters that look like chickenpox
Round, pinpoint spots on the skin
Large patch with several smaller ones
A lace-like pattern on the skin
Flat spots and raised bumps that join together
Symptoms: Some rashes itch.
Treatment: Some rashes require medical treatment.
Keep in mind that you can have a rash that’s due to a condition other than COVID-19. If you develop a rash, contact your doctor.
How long does a COVID-19 rash last?
More information is needed to know for sure. Right now, reports suggest that a rash typically lasts between 2 and 12 days, with most people having a rash for 8 days.
Why does COVID-19 only affect some people’s skin?
COVID-19 is a new disease, so doctors are still learning about it. Dermatologists are leading the effort to find out exactly how the coronavirus affects the skin.
If you develop a rash or COVID toes, you can help others
If you test positive for the coronavirus and develop a rash or COVID toes, you can help doctors learn more about COVID-19. To help, ask your doctor to submit information to the American Academy of Dermatology’s COVID-19 registry.
Doctors from around the world are encouraged to participate.
Related AAD resources
2-4, 5-8: Images used with permission of Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology and JAAD Case Reports.
JAAD Case Rep. 2020;6:489-92.
JAAD Case Rep. 2020;6:892-7.
J Am Acad Dermatol. 2020 May 4;S0190-9622(20)30789-1.
J Am Acad Dermatol. 2020 Apr 10;S0190-9622(20)30556-9.
J Am Acad Dermatol. 2020 Jul;83(1):e61-e63.
1, 5: Getty Images
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