What is HIV Rash?

HIV rash is one of the first signs of infection in many patients. It can also occur in patients who are taking antiretroviral medication to treat HIV. Learn how to identify the rash and find out what you can do to get diagnosed or alleviate the symptoms.

What Does HIV Rash Look Like?

HIV rash usually causes blotches and spots on the skin, which are red in people with fair skin, or dark purplish in people with dark skin. The spots may be flat or slightly raised, and tend to be very itchy. The symptoms vary between patients - some get a very severe rash which covers a large area, others only have a very minor rash. In most cases, the HIV rash occurs during seroconversion (the time when the infection becomes detectable via blood tests).

The rash tends to disappear by itself within a few weeks. Some people mistake it for an allergic reaction or eczema and fail to realise that they have contracted HIV.

It usually occurs on:

  • shoulders
  • chest
  • face
  • upper body
  • hands

Who Gets HIV Rash?

HIV rash can occur either as an early sign of HIV, or as a reaction to HIV treatment. In people who have recently been infected with HIV, it tends to appear within weeks of infection. It is important that you get tested for HIV if you have had unprotected sex and are suffering from an unexplained rash. Getting tested will either give you peace of mind or help you get treated without delay.

Patients who are undergoing antiretroviral treatment for HIV sometimes develop a rash as a reaction to the medication.

Can HIV medications cause rash?

HIV medications cause rash in some patients. If you experience the rash as a side effect, you should speak to your doctor, who may be able to recommend an alternative medication. Do not stop taking your medication.

HIV medications which cause rash include:

  • NNRTIs such as nevirapine
  • efavirenz
  • atazanavir
  • abacavir

In a small number of patients, HIV treatment can cause very severe rashes known as Steven-Johnson Syndrome (SJS) and Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis (TEN). Both conditions usually affect a large part of the body and they need to be treated without delay. SJS and TEN cause severe mouth ulcers, fever and painful sores.

Treating the Rash

Although the rash in itself is not dangerous, it can be very itchy and unpleasant. You may need to adjust your lifestyle until the rash has improved.

It helps to avoid:

  • heat
  • direct sunlight
  • hot showers and baths
  • scratchy clothing and fabrics (such as wool)

It helps to:

  • use mild soaps and creams
  • regularly use moisturiser
  • wear light, breathable fabrics which don’t irritate the skin (such as cotton)

You can treat most HIV rashes with over-the-counter creams such as hydrocortisone or antihistamine cream. Ask your doctor for advice on how to relieve symptoms.

Other Rashes caused by HIV

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) affects your immune system and impairs its function. As a result, you are more likely to develop certain conditions and symptoms. HIV patients who have the herpes virus for example may experience recurrent bouts of herpes as a result of their weakened immune system.

Do I Have HIV Rash?

If you are suffering from an unexplained rash, it is important that you visit a doctor to get diagnosed. Rashes can have many different causes, from allergies to infections. In order to check whether you have HIV, you will have to have a blood test.

You can get tested at your local GP or GUM clinic. If you would like to get tested without seeing a GP, you can use a HIV home test kit. Our Superdrug nurses also offer an instant HIV test, which means that you get your test result within minutes.

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