Prickly Heat

Prickly heat is common and can affect anyone. It is painful, intensely itchy and can spoil your long awaited holiday. It differs from urticaria, which is an allergic reaction. It occurs in hot, humid environments and is caused by blocking of the flow of sweat from the sweat glands to the skin surface . As the sweat is then retained within the skin, the symptoms and appearances depend on where the ducts are blocked.

The most superficial blocking causes the skin to bubble and make it look as if it has a covering of dew.

Blockage at a deeper level is when the skin develops numerous, tiny red spots which are intensely itchy. This is what most people would recognise as prickly heat.

Less common is the deepest form, when larger red spots develop. These can sometimes appear as if they are infected with pus.

The following measures have been thought to help although there have been no proper trials to support them.

  • The use of sunscreen and gradually increasing exposure to sunlight
  • Bathing the affected area with hot water
  • Cleansing the affected area thoroughly with rough flannel and soap, or antiseptic solution
  • Antihistamines for itching
  • Exposure to a cold environment to allow the body to cool naturally
  • Steroids applied sparingly, preferably in the form of alcohol based lotions can be helpful
According to some, cold showers and the application of powders, ointments and creams are all likely to obstruct the glands and make things worse in the long-term, although they appear to relieve the immediate symptoms.

Gradual and limited exposure to strong sunlight, together with the use of sunscreen is necessary to protect you from skin cancer, so it is advisable to follow that advice anyway.

Further information

This article published on
08 August 2005

Next review date 8/1/2013


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