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Pityriasis rosea

Dear Alice,

What is pitoriasis rosea?

Dear Reader, 

Pityriasis rosea, often misspelled (you were very close!) and mispronounced, is a generally mild skin disease more common in, but not limited to, individuals who are 10 to 35 years of age. In addition, women may be slightly more likely to have pityriasis rosea than men. Currently, the cause of pityriasis rosea is unknown. Most of the time, it clears on its own, though treatment may be needed in more severe cases. Ready for more? Keep reading! 

The symptoms of pityriasis rosea can last anywhere from several weeks to several months, and usually begins with a skin rash, or lesion, on the chest or back region known as a "herald" or "mother" patch. This appears as a single, large, and scaly patch that is slightly raised, pinkish, reddish, or brownish in color and is in the shape of a circle or oval. After about one to two weeks, more patches, smaller in size though, will appear on the torso, arms, and legs, while the face, hands, and feet are rarely ever affected. In addition to the large patch, pityriasis rosea also presents a distinctive pattern of an evergreen tree where the patches form over the back, chest, or abdomen. In addition to the “herald” patch and subsequent patches, other symptoms may include some itching (usually mild but in some cases can be severe), feeling ill for a few days, fatigue, and achiness. Some experts believe that it may be associated with certain strains of the herpes virus but not the same strains that cause oral and genital herpes. While pityriasis rosea may occur in clusters of people, it’s not considered highly contagious and usually doesn’t recur. 

In terms of treatment, pityriasis rosea typically clears up on its own within six to eight weeks, although occasionally some lesions may persist for several months. For those with darker skin, the pigmentation from the rash may take longer to fade; however, it usually disappears, with or without treatment. If a case is severe, a health care provider may prescribe medication to relieve itching and inflammation, and possibly suggest ultraviolet (UV) light treatments or moderate exposure to sunlight to help promote healing and reduce itchiness. While waiting for the rash to fade, ways to help keep symptoms under control can include: 

  • Avoiding any situation where the body might get overheated 
  • Using lukewarm water when showering or bathing 
  • Taking an oatmeal bath 
  • Using calamine lotion or zinc oxide cream (to help with itching) 
  • Taking over-the-counter antihistamines 

If you’re experiencing these symptoms, it's wise to get a proper diagnosis from your health care provider. Symptoms of pityriasis rosea can sometimes be easily confused with several other skin conditions (such as ringworm, secondary syphilis, eczema, and psoriasis). Once you're sure what you have, then you can take the appropriate steps to quash the rash. Hope this information helps! 

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Last updated Jun 18, 2021
Originally published Mar 07, 1997

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