What Are the Defining Features of a Maculopapular Rash?

Which medical conditions cause a maculopapular rash to develop

woman scratching rash
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The term maculopapular ( pronounced MAK-yoo-lo-PAP-yoo-lar) is used to define a rash that contains both macules and papules. A macule is a flat discolored area of the skin, and a papule is a small raised bump. Learn more about these rashes and the medical conditions that commonly cause them to develop with this review.

What Does a Maculopapular Rash Look Like?

A maculopapular rash is usually a large area that is red and has small, confluent bumps.

The sandpapery rash of scarlet fever, or scarletina, is the classic example of a maculopapular rash.

These rashes are described by the Greek word exanthem, which means "a skin eruption that bursts forth or blooms." The rashes do not necessarily itch, but should they, physicians may prescribe creams to patients to mute the itching sensation.

Which Medical Conditions Cause Maculopapular Rashes?

Maculopapular rashes are also associated with the common childhood virus rubella (also known as German Measles). Roughly two weeks after infection with the rubella virus, children (but adults may contract the virus, too) develop a maculopapular rash on their face. Then the rash spreads down to their feet.

This rash stands out from the standard measles rash because it is more mild, and the small spots that characterize it aren't interconnected like they are with measles. The maculopapular rash the rubella virus causes normally lasts about three days and can appear stronger after children take a warm bath or shower or engage in any other activity that causes them to become overheated.

In addition to scarlet fever and the German Measles, maculopapular rashes are associated with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Two to six weeks after exposure to the virus, people with HIV may break out in a maculopapular rash on the upper part of their bodies as a result of developing acute retroviral syndrome, the flu-like symptoms that newly infected individuals sometimes exhibit.

The rash may resolve after a couple of weeks, and physicians may prescribe antiretroviral drugs to help if the patient is found to be HIV positive. 

Wrapping Up

Don't jump to conclusions if you develop a maculopapular rash, as such rashes are linked to many medical conditions. These conditions include everything from Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever to allergic reactions to the prescription drug Amoxil. Toxins and autoimmune conditions can cause such rashes as well. When virus or bacteria are at fault, a patient with a maculopapular rash will also develop symptoms such as fatigue or muscle aches.

If you develop a maculopapular rash, don't assume the worst. However, you should contact a physician to be evaluated and to have the culprit for the rash treated. If you can't see a physician promptly. Make a trip to an urgent care facility, as some causes of maculopapular rashes need immediate treatment.

Physicians receive training to distinguish between rash patterns, but if they're unclear which medical condition is causing the rash, they may take a swab to have it identified, get a blood sample from a patient to look for antibodies to viruses or bacteria, or conduct DNA probes to find the rash-causing agent.

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