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HIV Rash

What causes an HIV rash?

A rash is a raised or flat inflamed area of skin that typically results in reddened, itchy and/or painful skin patches. Rashes are a common occurrence for individuals with HIV. For HIV-positive people, a rash can be caused by many things, including--

  • A rash can be a symptom of an HIV infection
  • A rash can be a symptom of another infection or illness someone with HIV is trying to fight off
  • A rash can be a side effect of HIV medications
  • A rash may be a side effect of other medications being taken

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Rashes as a sign of an acute HIV infection

Rashes are one of the most common symptoms of an acute (new) HIV infection, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The acute stage of an HIV infection is the most contagious stage because the amount of the virus is highest at this point of infection. It is important to get tested for HIV if you suspect that a rash you have could be a sign of having contracted HIV. The sooner you get tested for HIV, the sooner you can know your status and avoid potentially spreading the virus to others.

Rashes as a symptom of other infections

Many illnesses and infections can cause a rash. Since HIV attacks immune cells, the body of an individual with HIV is especially susceptible to contracting other diseases and infections since the immune system is already weakened from trying to fend off the HIV virus. This helps to make it easy for other infections to wreak havoc on the body, many of which may have a rash as a symptom.

Rashes as a result of medications, including HIV medication

Rashes are a common side effect to many medications. According to the NIH, HIV medicines in all HIV drug classes can cause a rash. Typically if a rash is occurring as a side effect of an HIV medication, your doctor may switch you to another medicine. Most rashes related to HIV medications will resolve themselves over time (frequently after several days or weeks) and are not severe, however, in rare instances, a rash can be a sign of a serious, and sometimes life- threatening condition called Stevens-Johnson syndrome or SJS.

SJS is a rare but life-threatening hypersensitivity reaction reported with use of some HIV medicines. Those taking HIV medicines need to know about this condition as it can cause death.

Symptoms of SJS include fever; pain or itching of the skin; swelling of the tongue and face; blisters that develop on the skin and mucous membranes, especially around the mouth, nose, and eyes; and a rash that starts quickly and may spread.

A severe hypersensitivity reaction can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention. SJS must be treated immediately, so seek medical attention immediately or call 911 if you think you are experience SJS.

HIV medications that have been associated with SJS or a hypersensitivity reaction include nevirapine (branded as: Viramune) and abacavir (branded as: Ziagen).

  1. Hoenigl, Martin, Nella Green, Martha Camacho, Sara Gianella, Sanjay R. Mehta, Davey M. Smith, and Susan J. Little. "Signs or Symptoms of Acute HIV Infection in a Cohort Undergoing Community-Based Screening." Emerging Infectious Diseases. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4766914/
  2. "HIV and Rash Understanding HIV/AIDS." National Institutes of Health. https://aidsinfo.nih.gov/understanding-hiv-aids/fact-sheets/22/60/hiv-and-rash
  3. "Stevens-Johnson Syndrome/toxic Epidermal Necrolysis - Genetics Home Reference - NIH." U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/stevens-johnson-syndrome-toxic-epidermal-necrolysis
  4. "HIV-Related Skin and Complexion Conditions." UC Health - UC San Diego. https://health.ucsd.edu/specialties/hiv/hiv-health/Pages/skin.aspx

Medically Reviewed by on Jun 18, 2019

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