Cutaneous Drug Reactions

Cutaneous drug reactions are adverse responses to drugs that appear on the skin. A red, itchy rash and hives are the most common reactions; however, there are many different types, and some are life-threatening. Drugs that most frequently cause problems include sulfa drugs, antibiotics such as penicillins and tetracyclines, and phenytoin (a drug that prevents convulsions).

Signs and Symptoms

What Causes It?

Some drugs that might cause cutaneous reactions include the following.

What to Expect at Your Provider's Office

Your health care provider will examine your skin, mouth, and throat. You should make a list of all the drugs (prescription, nonprescription, and illegal) and herbal and vitamin supplements you've taken over the last four weeks. Your provider may have you stop taking the suspected drug and prescribe something else.

Treatment Options

Choice of treatment depends on the type of reaction you are having and how serious it is. Symptoms will often disappear once you stop taking the suspected drug; however, you may need treatment to recover. Your health care provider may prescribe drugs to help stop the reaction, such as epinephrines, corticosteroids, antihistamines, or topical ointments. If you also have life-threatening symptoms, such as trouble breathing, you will be hospitalized until you are stable.

Drug Therapies

Surgical Procedures

Surgical removal of dead tissue in severe reactions

Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Some cutaneous drug reactions may be life-threatening and need immediate medical attention. Mild to moderate reactions may be safely and effectively treated with alternative therapies. Nutrition
Herbs may be used as dried extracts (capsules, powders, teas), glycerites (glycerine extracts), or tinctures (alcohol extracts). Unless otherwise indicated, teas should be made with 1 tsp. herb per cup of hot water. Steep covered 5 to 10 minutes for leaf or flowers, and 10 to 20 minutes for roots. Drink 2 to 4 cups per day. Tinctures may be used singly or in combination as noted. An infusion of equal parts of coneflower (Echinacea augustifolia), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), peppermint (Mentha piperita), and red clover (Trifolium pratense) will strengthen your immune system, reduce swelling, and help with lymph drainage (fluid that is part of immune system).

To relieve itching, use one or more of the following herbs brewed as a tea to make a skin wash (1 tsp. of herb per cup of water): peppermint, chickweed (Stellaria media), or chamomile (Matricaria recutita). Be sure the tea is cool, and apply to the affected area as needed. To help your skin heal, add one or more of the following: marigold (Calendula officinalis), comfrey (Symphytum officinale), or coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia).

For open sores use powdered slippery elm (Ulmus fulva), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), and marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis). Add enough skin wash to make a paste. Apply to affected area as needed.

Aloe vera gel applied to your skin can soothe burning and reduce swelling. For further skin relief, add powdered oatmeal (or 1 cup of oatmeal in a sock) to a lukewarm bath. Or, make a skin balm from flaxseed oil (2 tbsp.) plain or with 5 drops of oil of chamomile or marigold.


Some cutaneous drug reactions are life-threatening and require immediate medical attention. Homeopathic remedies can be used to improve symptoms of itching, burning, and swelling. While there have been few studies examining the effectiveness of specific homeopathic remedies, professional homeopaths may recommend one or more of the following treatments for cutaneous drug reactions based on their knowledge and clinical experience. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's constitutional type. In homeopathic terms, a person's constitution is his or her physical, emotional, and intellectual makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate remedy for a particular individual.

Following Up

It is important to stay in touch with your health care provider until the reaction is completely cleared up. If you have severe reactions, wear medical-alert jewelry stating what drugs you are allergic to.

Special Considerations

If you have any questions about any drug—whether it is prescribed by your health care provider or purchased over the counter—ask your pharmacist or health care provider.


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