What Is Petechiae?

What is petechiae?

Petechiae is when tiny bruises appear on the skin, due to blood leaking out of the small capillaries. “The spots can range in size from smaller dots to larger splotches, but they are generally harmless,” says Adam Friedman, MD, associate professor of dermatology at George Washington School of Medicine.

What causes petechiae?

“Most commonly, petechiae occurs when there has been increased pressure in the blood vessels or trauma to the skin,” says Toronto-based dermatologist Michelle Levy, MD.

  • Prolonged straining, like with weightlifting or childbirth
  • Intense bouts of coughing, crying, or vomiting
  • Clothes with a too-tight waistband
  • Wearing a backpack that is too heavy

Less commonly, underlying medical issues can be to blame. “Clotting issues or even medications meant to thin the blood can cause petechiae, as can problems with the structure of the blood vessels, or inflammation of the blood vessels,” says Dr. Friedman. Those conditions include:

  • Rare blood cancers
  • Some autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and Sjogren’s syndrome
  • Systemic infections like strep and other bacteria

Who is most likely to get it?

Petechiae can affect anyone, at any age, if it’s due to trauma of the skin. However, when vascular issues are the root cause, elderly people are more likely to be affected.

How are petechiae treated?

Assuming there’s no underlying medical condition, it typically resolves itself within one to two weeks, so you don’t need to treat it, says Dr. Levy. That said, if you’d like to clear it up faster, Dr. Friedman suggests an OTC product called Dermend, which can be effective. If you’re experiencing discomfort and inflammation though, he recommends a prescription  topical steroid.

When should you see a doctor?

You may not need to see a doctor at all — unless you have petechiae, along with these symptoms:

  • Petechiae covers large areas of the body
  • You also have fever, joint pain, excessive sweating, rapid weight loss, or gastrointestinal distress
  • You’re having difficulty stopping even minor cuts from bleeding
  • There’s no clear explanation for it

While petechiae may be unsightly, it’s rarely cause for concern, so don’t panic when you see the spots and splotches pop up.

Photo: Getty