Data from millions of ZOE Health Study app contributors has shown that changes to the skin, fingers and toes can be symptoms of COVID. Here’s how to spot them and what they feel like.
What are skin rashes like in COVID?
COVID rashes are usually itchy and this may lead to poor sleep. Some people with rashes also experience sensitivity to ultraviolet (UV) light, getting red patches on their face after being outside for a short period of time.
Rashes associated with COVID-19 fall into these categories:
‘Prickly heat’ or chickenpox-type rash: This is the most commonly reported rash and it appears as small areas of itchy red bumps. It can occur anywhere on the body, usually starting around the elbows or knees as well as the back of the hands and feet. It can sometimes be crusty, weepy or form blisters and does not tend to affect the face.
Hive-type rash (urticaria): This is the second most commonly reported rash and appears suddenly as raised bumps on the skin which come and go quite quickly over hours. It can involve any part of the body, including the face. This rash is extremely itchy and often starts with intense itching of the palms or soles, and can cause swelling of the lips and eyelids.
There are other, rarer, rashes associated with COVID-19 including Pityriasis Rosea-like, light-sensitive rashes affecting the face or neck. Vasculitis rashes, when small blood vessels in the skin become damaged, are also seen in severe cases of COVID-19 that need hospital support.
You can see more images of COVID rashes.
It’s not clear exactly what causes rashes in COVID-19, but it may be related to the immune response to the virus.
What are ‘COVID fingers’ and ‘COVID toes’?
During earlier waves, so-called COVID fingers and toes (chilblains) were the most specific COVID-19 skin change. Normally, chilblains are only seen in cold weather and in people who have existing problems with the blood supply to their fingers or toes.
However, chilblains were occurring more frequently and even in warm weather among those who had COVID-19 early in the pandemic. It appeared as reddish and purplish bumps on the fingers or toes but also the palms.
COVID fingers and toes were seen to affect many digits and were usually sore but not itchy. For example, people often found it painful when typing on a keyboard or walking.
You can see images of COVID fingers and toes.
How common are rashes in COVID-19?
During earlier waves, some of the least common symptoms of COVID-19 included characteristic skin rashes, ‘COVID fingers and toes’ as well as other skin changes. These affected around one in 10 people.
Luckily, skin rashes are now a rare symptom of COVID-19. However, our past data has shown that COVID rashes can be stubborn and may require prescribed medication. They can last a long time, sometimes up to several months. Some COVID-related rashes come and go in waves, and these are commonly reported in people with Long COVID.
What should I do if I have a skin rash and think it might be COVID-19?
It’s vital that people know the current symptoms of COVID now that restrictions have lifted and access to testing has changed.
If you have a new rash or red and swollen toes for fingers it could be COVID, especially if you have other cold-like symptoms.
If your rash is very itchy, ask your GP for prescribed medications such as steroid creams to help alleviate the discomfort.
If you have red and swollen fingers and toes, keep them warm with gloves and socks. You could also massage in steroid cream to help reduce any soreness, which your GP can prescribe. However, most COVID fingers and toes do not need treatment and gradually clear up over several weeks.
Download the ZOE Health Study app to log your symptoms. Whether you have COVID or any other bug, please be considerate by staying home when you’re ill and wearing a high quality FFP2 or FFP3 mask when you go out, to avoid spreading your germs to others who may be more vulnerable.
Help science and keep logging.