A new rash on your skin can be confusing. After all, there are a number of reasons for skin rashes to appear, and it’s not always obvious what’s to blame. Rashes are a common symptom of HIV, though, so it’s important not to ignore sudden, new rashes on your skin.

If you think you might have recently been exposed to HIV and a rash pops up a few days later, you should get tested. Don’t try to self-diagnose yourself by looking at pictures online, but do use this article as a way to familiarize yourself with how an HIV rash appears on Black skin.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Black and African American people account for a higher proportion of new HIV diagnoses compared to other ethnicities. This makes HIV awareness in Black communities even more important. Stigmas around HIV often result in a lack of preventative care and treatments.

Understanding the signs and symptoms of HIV, including what a rash on dark skin looks like, helps increase awareness around the virus. Regular testing for HIV and STIs is the only foolproof way of knowing where your health stands.

A rash caused by a new HIV infection usually shows up on your face or trunk and is a raised area with small bumps on it. The area may look purple on Black skin. On white skin, it’s frequently red.

There’s no one-size-fits-all — or one-look-fits-all, as it were — when it comes to an HIV rash. It can show up in a range of colors, depending on your skin’s base color. On melanin-rich skin, the raised area may look purple. The small bumps on the raised area may look flesh-colored, white, red, or purple. It may also appear on your hands or feet instead of (or in addition to) your trunk and face.

Sometimes a rash shows up on the skin of someone with a new HIV infection in the early weeks, or sometimes a medication taken for HIV can cause a rash. Both are simply referred to as HIV rash.

An HIV rash may itch, but it’s not typically painful. Bumps and lesions caused by other conditions such as shingles and herpes, may hurt or feel tender to the touch.

HIV-positive people tend to be sensitive to chemicals and sunlight. There’s no evidence that skin color makes a difference in how HIV affects the skin. The main distinction is in how the rash looks on different skin colors.

People living with HIV may get painful rashes from other infections that result because of a weakened immune system. Common rash-causing infections for people living with HIV include:

  • herpes (I and II)
  • Kaposi sarcoma
  • shingles
  • syphilis

A person who has HIV is at an increased chance of developing any of the five conditions listed above, but the rashes resulting from each are not caused by HIV itself. Shingles is sometimes an early symptom of a new HIV infection.

On the other hand, if you have HIV and later develop lesions from a skin cancer called Kaposi sarcoma, this means your HIV has advanced and is now a Stage 3 HIV, or AIDS.

When a person first gets HIV, a skin rash is one of several symptoms that might show up a few days after the infection. It may last anywhere from 2 weeks to a month. Others symptoms associated with HIV include:

  • fever
  • fatigue
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • swollen tonsils (tonsillitis)
  • sore throat
  • joint and muscle aches
  • diarrhea

Many of these symptoms appear with a flu too. Since rashes aren’t a very common flu symptom though, if you have flu-like symptoms and a new skin rash, you should get tested for HIV as soon as possible.

If the flu-like symptoms are caused by HIV, they will usually go away as the body shifts from the period known as acute infection into what’s called latency. During this stage, a person with HIV may not have any symptoms at all, following the initial symptoms. Medication is still needed, which is why getting screened for the virus is crucial.

Getting tested for HIV and other STIs should be a regular part of taking care of your health.

If you are HIV-positive, you can begin treatment right away. Early treatment is recommended for managing the virus. Plus, the medications may help clear up the rash. An HIV rash that is caused by a new HIV infection usually lasts 2 weeks and goes away on its own.

Avoiding hot showers and sunlight can help prevent further skin irritation. You can also ask your doctor or pharmacist about an anti-itch cream like hydrocortisone. No matter the cause of the rash, you may be able to find some relief with a cream that reduces itchiness.

The American Academy of Dermatology Association recommends going immediately to the emergency room if you experience a:

  • rash all over your body
  • fever
  • rash that’s sudden and spreads rapidly
  • blistered rash
  • painful rash
  • rash that’s infected

An infected rash may have yellow or green fluid coming from an area you scratched. Your skin may swell, get crusty (if there’s fluid from scratching), or it may feel warm to the touch. It’s not uncommon to have red or purple streaks near the site of the rash.

The first step if you suspect you might be HIV-positive is to get an HIV test. If you test positive, getting started on medication is essential for your health, and may also help your rash.

If your rash is potentially caused by a new HIV medication, stop taking it and contact your doctor right away so they can determine next steps.

If you are newly diagnosed with HIV, know that the life expectancy for people with HIV who are taking antiretroviral medication is within a few years of the average life expectancy for someone without HIV. Treatment has come a long way, leading most people with HIV to get an undetectable viral load.

Rashes are a common symptom of HIV, and it’s important not to ignore sudden, new rashes on your skin.

Understanding the signs and symptoms of HIV, including what a rash on dark skin looks like, helps increase awareness around the virus. Regular testing for HIV and STIs is the only foolproof way of knowing where your health stands. Talk with your doctor about testing that’s right for you.