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Facts about the skin from DermNet New Zealand Trust. Topic index: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Rashes affecting the lower legs


Most often, a rash affecting the lower legs is a type of dermatitis. The terms ‘dermatitis’ and ‘eczema’ are often used interchangeably. Acute dermatitis presents as red, swollen and blistered plaques. Chronic dermatitis accompanied by rubbing and scratching results in darkened (hyperpigmented), and thickened (lichenified) plaques.

There are several different types of lower leg dermatitis, which is common at all ages.

Atopic dermatitis
Atopic dermatitis Atopic dermatitis is particularly prevalent in children; in infants it frequently affects the feet and ankles, and in older children and adults it is often prominent behind both knees (the popliteal fossae). Characteristically, atopic dermatitis is very itchy and complicated by acute flare-ups. Sometimes the dermatitis is secondarily infected.
Discoid eczema
Discoid dermatitis Discoid eczema, also called nummular dermatitis, arises at any age and results in round or oval plaques. Dry discoid eczema is often relatively non-itchy, and is often due to over-dry skin, when it is known as ‘asteatotic’ eczema. Exudative or ‘wet’ discoid eczema is much more resistant to treatment. It is often triggered by an injury to the skin (insect bite, thermal burn, cut, surgical wound), and colonised or infected by Staphylococcus aureus. Discoid eczema starts with a single patch on one leg, but soon multiple lesions appear on both lower legs and may later affect the trunk and arms. In severe cases, a diffuse generalised rash due to autosensitisation dermatitis may occur.
Varicose eczema
Varicose dermatitis Varicose eczema refers to a discoid eczema that follows the line of varicose veins on one or both legs. Removal of the veins may be curative.
Gravitational dermatitis
Gravitational dermatitis Gravitational dermatitis, also called venous eczema, is due to valvular damage in leg veins and is due to past deep venous thrombosis (blood clot) or cellulitis (deep skin infection). The result is swelling, particularly after prolonged standing and during hot weather. Dermatitis can arise as discrete patches or affect the leg all the way around the ankle. The affected skin is red and scaly, and may ooze, crust and crack. It is frequently itchy. Surrounding skin may be irregularly discoloured from red blood cells that have leaked from the blood vessels because of the high venous pressure. Atrophie blanche is the term used for white scarred areas surrounded by tiny red spots (enlarged capillaries). Complications of gravitational dermatitis include secondary infection (impetigo and cellulitis), lipodermatosclerosis (hard deep tissues), autosensitisation (generalised rash) and ulceration.
Contact dermatitis
Contact dermatitis Contact dermatitis can be due to irritants, such as excessive bathing, soaps and tight socks, or to a specific allergic reaction. For unknown reasons, certain medicaments and cosmetics containing topical antibiotics, fragrances and preservatives are more likely to sensitise when applied to the lower leg than on other sites. The result is a blistering eruption precisely corresponding to the site of application of the topical agent. If the cause is uncertain, a dermatologist may be able to identify the specific allergens by patch testing.
Lichen simplex
Lichen simplex Lichen simplex is a solitary well-demarcated plaque of chronic eczema and most often arises on the lateral lower leg, due to a long-standing habit of rubbing. The more it's rubbed, the itchier it becomes.
Prurigo nodularis
Prurigo nodularis Prurigo nodularis refers to extremely itchy hard nodules 1-3 cm in diameter. They are very resistant to treatment. They most often appear on the lower legs of atopic subjects and can be extremely debilitating.

Scaly rashes of the lower legs

Scaly conditions affecting the lower legs include:

Psoriasis Psoriasis presents with symmetrical, red, scaly plaques, most marked on knees and shins.
Lichen planus
Psoriasis Lichen planus presents with very itchy scaly plaques. Colour varies from pink or mauve (in white skin) to purplish-brown (in dark skin). They are irregular in shape and distribution.
Skin cancers
Skin cancers Skin cancers are relatively asymptomatic slowly growing red dry patches that tend to bleed (basal cell carcinoma, Bowen disease), or faster-growing scaly lumps (invasive squamous cell carcinoma). Surgical removal is usual, but options for treatment may include cryotherapy, photodynamic therapy or imiquimod cream.

Infections favouring the lower legs

Cellulitis Cellulitis is bacterial infection resulting in fevers, chills, sepsis and painful, hot, redness and swelling. A red streak may spread to local lymph nodes.
Folliculitis Folliculitis are itchy or non-itchy pustules affecting hair follicles, often resulting from shaving or waxing.
Tinea corporis
Tinea corporis Tinea corporis (fungal infection) results in irregular plaque(s) usually affecting only one leg, with spreading and more prominent edge, often originating from tinea pedis (look for a scaly foot) or tinea unguium (discoloured and crumbling toenails). Diagnosis should be confirmed by mycology of skin scrapings prior to use of topical or oral antifungal agents.

Redness of the lower legs

Other red or purplish conditions favouring the lower legs include:

Pretibial myxoedema
Pretibial myxoedema Associated with an overactive thyroid gland.
Panniculitis Inflamed lumps under the skin. The most common type of panniculitis is erythema nodosum.
Necrobiosis lipoidica
Necrobiosis lipoidica Associated with insulin dependent diabetes mellitus.
Vasculitis Small and/or large vessels may be affected. Palpable red or purpuric (non-blanching) papules, plaques. Blistering sometimes occurs.
Capillaritis Red to brownish non-blanching spots.

Lower leg ulcers

Detailed descriptions of leg ulcers ...

Leg ulcers
Leg ulcers Leg ulcers have many possible underlying causes.

Management of lower leg rashes

Management depends on making a correct diagnosis. General advice should include:

Avoid topical antibiotics, topical antihistamines and multi-ingredient fragranced or herb-containing emollients because of the risk of provoking contact allergy.

Related information

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Author: Dr Amanda Oakley MBChB FRACP, Dept of Dermatology Waikato Hospital. Reviewed and revised, May 2014.

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