Causes Of Burning Skin Sensation With And Without Rash

Human skin perceives a number of different sensations that can serve as warning signals of tissue damage or potential injury. Pain, burning and itching are the main sensations that tell us to take action by either removing the offending agent or moving away from it as soon as possible. However, sometimes these sensations can emanate from the skin for no clearly identifiable reason. A burning sensation or burning pain may be a symptom of some underlying disease, an injury that is not obvious, allergies, drug reactions, poisoning and nerve disease.

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Burning Pain Sensation On The Skin

Inflammation is the body’s way of preventing tissue damage. It is a short-lived mechanism that is marked by pain, swelling, heat and redness. These physiological effects are caused by the release of inflammatory chemicals at the affected area. It causes the blood vessels in the area to dilate, allows fluid to seep into the tissue spaces and stimulates the pain receptors (nociceptors) in the vicinity. These pain receptor elicit signals are sent back to the brain. A burning pain is largely due to the way these nociceptors are stimulated.

Similarly there are thermoreceptors in the skin which are able to detect temperature. It allows us to detect cold and hot. These receptors may also be stimulated and relay signals, along with pain signals, to the central nervous system when there is inflammation in a part of the body. However, there are instances when pain is not elicited at the receptor level but rather from abnormalities in the nerve fibers that carry these signals or in the parts of the brain that perceives pain.

Causes of Burning Skin Sensation

Trauma

Any physical or chemical trauma to the skin can cause a burning sensation even if there is no pain. This can include:

  • Blunt force impact
  • Sharp injury
  • Heat (burns)
  • Ice
  • Chemical burn
  • Insect bite or sting
  • Strong sunlight
  • Radiation

The cause of the trauma is usually obvious. Typically there will be redness, swelling and heat over the affected area that is characteristic of inflammation.

sunburn

Picture of sunburn on a woman’s back

Allergy

An allergy can also trigger a burning sensation when the skin comes into contact with the allergen. Itching is a common symptom along with some skin rash. Sometimes the cause may be obvious like with a latex allergy but at other times the allergen may not be as easy to identify. However, the burning is an indicator of where contact with the allergen was made like in allergic contact dermatitis. People with atopic dermatitis or other allergic conditions may experience skin symptoms even if the allergen has not made contact with the skin at the specific area where the burning is felt. Apart from localized skin reactions, burning sensations may also occur with anaphylaxis.

cholinergic_physical_urticaria

Picture of urticaria (hives)

Plants (Herbs)

The chemicals in some plants can cause burning when it comes into contact with the skin. Stinging nettles and poison ivy are some examples of plants that cause this localized skin reaction. Itching, welts, swelling and redness are other symptoms that may also be present. Capsaicin that is extracted from chili peppers are used in certain creams for easing pain and even itching in skin diseases in psoriasis. But undiluted capsaicin or concentrated forms can cause a burning sensation on the skin. Mustard oil is another known problem plant-based item that can cause skin burning if not properly diluted.

Skin Diseases

A burning sensation of the skin can occur with most skin diseases. This includes skin conditions where itching is usually the main sensation, such as contact dermatitis, atopic dermatitis (eczema), urticaria and psoriasis. Sometimes this burning sensation arises secondary to the itching, as a result of scratching vigorously which causes micro-tears in the skin. The burning is therefore not part of the presentation of the skin disease but arises as a complication of skin damage due to scratching. It may also arise with a secondary bacterial infection of the damaged or diseased area of the skin which also often presents with pustules and oozing discharge.

Cutaneous Decompression Sickness

Skin bends, also known as cutaneous decompression sickness, is a condition where the skin becomes red, has a burning sensation, itches, may swell and develops a marbled appearance. It is similar to the bends in that the gases dissolved in the blood form bubbles within the body. The skin capillaries are one site where these bubbles tend to deposit. Skin bends are not a common occurrence and may not always require treatment but should be considered as a possible cause of burning skin after diving. It should also be remembered that certain aquatic animals may also have toxic stings or bites that could also be a cause.

Drugs and Toxins

There are a number of different drugs and poisons that can cause a burning sensation of the skin, without or without other symptoms. Dermatitis medicamentosa is a term for the range of skin rashes and symptoms that arise with using certain pharmaceutical drugs. It is also known as drug eruptions. Illicit street drugs may also cause a burning sensation of the skin for a number of reasons, including irritation of the receptors and nerves, disturbances of the brain chemistry and sensations, and the effects of toxins in these drugs.

Poisoning may be intentional or accidental and there are a number of toxins that can cause a burning skin sensation. These toxins may be naturally occurring in certain plants and animals or synthetic. A burning skin sensation is frequently seen with arsenic poisoning, one of the substances widely used in intentional poisoning. Refer to the list of poisons that cause burning skin on Diagnosis Pro for more information.

Peripheral Neuropathy

Any damage, irritation or disease of the nerves can elicit a burning sensation on the skin. The term for these different nerve disorders is neuropathy and when it affects the nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord it is known as peripheral neuropathy. It can occur for a number of different reasons, including inflammation (traumatic and non-traumatic), infection, metabolic, toxic or hereditary factors and due to nerve tumors.

pinched nerve

Two common causes include a pinched nerve where there is compression of the nerve root emanating from the spinal cord, and diabetic neuropathy which is nerve damage from long standing diabetes. A burning sensation may also be accompanied by tingling, prickling and numbness when the sensory nerve fibers are only affected, or there may also be accompanying muscle weakness or paralysis if mixed fibers or motor fibers are involved.

  • cloa513

    I have burning skin sensations on my back and back of shoulders but a dermatology couldn’t spot anything. I have had some sunburns quite a long time ago. I get a little skin peeling/smearing but sometimes just the burning. What could be the cause so I get it properly checked?

  • Hi Cloa513, There are many skin conditions where a burning sensation and skin peeling may be present. The fact that your dermatologist did not find anything does not mean that there is no problem. You should seek a second opinion before dismissing it. However, this could just be mild irritation from clothing, sweat and the sun which is not causing a severe enough reaction right now. Speak to another dermatologist.

  • cloa513

    I spoke to another one today but without some ideas about diagnosis then I won’t get good result- it may not be the skin but rather connective tissue. I also have non-reddened subcutaneous inflammation associated to trousers rubbing (no chaffing- have that in crotch area but petroleum jelly prevents it) in the upper inner thigh- the dermatologist gave me pain relieving cream. I really need something for doctors to formally check.

  • Bet

    I get burning on my eye lids,finger tip corner of mouth for no apparent reason it’s off and on through out the day I really need help

  • Courtney Oneal

    My husband gets a burning sensation on his thighs and the doctors can’t figure it out. He said he was sprayed by a chemical a few years back, but there is no redness or marking. He said it burns and he cant touch them.

  • Hi Courtney. The chemical exposure could have caused skin damage or even damaged a nerve which may account for the ongoing burning sensation in the thigh. However, it could also be an entirely different cause like a fungal infection of the skin. These are just some of the possibilities. You may also want to read up on a condition called meralgia paresthesia which causes thigh pain. This may not be relevant to your husband’s condition. Here is a link to an article on that condition http://www.healthhype.com/meralgia-paresthetica-outer-thigh-pain-or-numbness.html

  • Hi Samantha. Many conditions can cause this from the more obvious sunburn to contact dermatitis and so on as you will see from the article above. All of these conditions can present with a burning sensation and some degree of peeling. So based on these symptoms alone it is difficult to say for sure what it could be. Remember that sunburn can occur at any time and not only after you spend a long day in the sun. Similarly conditions like contact dermatitis may be due to something as harmless as soap which can irritate the skin. You need to speak to your family doctor and follow up with a dermatologist. An exact diagnosis has to be made in order for the appropriate treatment to be prescribed, as different skin conditions can seem largely the same.

  • Victoria

    I have a burning and itching on my arms and it didn’t go away. There’s no rash

  • Hi Victoria. Burning and itching are both symptoms as you have read in the article above. It occurs in a host of different conditions even without a rash. So the exact cause in your case has to be determined by a dermatologist after thorough examination. It could be related to a skin disease, but can also occur with exposure to certain irritants or allergens, with sunburn and so on. A dermatologist will have to make the final diagnosis.

  • Dudley Saunders

    I have an ongoing series of intense burning-itching rashes on my left arm that at first display no redness or raised areas at all and then finally manifest as either small red dots or red cysts which sometimes have a white blister on top. It feels almost like a low grade shingles that won’t quite ever go away. The pain is somewhat controlled by ice packs and regular application of
    Betamethasone diproprionate (cortisone failed) but the rashes continue to cycle on. One biopsy of a boil showed a staph infection but antibiotics had no impact. My dermatologist has basically thrown up her hands. Any ideas? This has been going on for two years now and every option has been excluded: no folliculitis, no contact dermatitis (I wear no sleeves), no sun issues, no obvious allergy. I’m getting afraid this is going to be my life.