Clinical Review

Skin Diseases Associated With COVID-19: A Narrative Review

Author and Disclosure Information

COVID-19 is an infectious disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, which emerged in China in 2019 and rapidly spread worldwide to become a pandemic in March 2020. Although the most severe manifestations concern the lower respiratory tract, COVID-19 is a multiorgan disease that also affects the skin. Several types of skin lesions have been reported to be associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection, though their causal relationship with the virus has not yet been well documented. In addition to the cutaneous manifestations that develop in patients with COVID-19—thought to be caused by the virus—other findings associated with the pandemic in a broader sense include dermatoses triggered or aggravated by the infection, the adverse cutaneous effects due to the drugs and protective devices used to prevent or fight the infection, and the adverse cutaneous effects of COVID-19 vaccines. We provide an overview of these dermatoses associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Practice Points

  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, several skin diseases were reported in association with this new infectious disease and were classified mainly according to their morphologic aspect. However, the pathogenetic mechanisms often are unclear and the causal link of the culprit virus (SARS-CoV-2) not always well established.
  • Currently, most skin manifestations related to COVID-19 are reported after vaccination against COVID-19; remarkably, many of them are similar to those attributed to the natural infection.



COVID-19 is a potentially severe systemic disease caused by SARS-CoV-2. SARS-CoV and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS-CoV) caused fatal epidemics in Asia in 2002 to 2003 and in the Arabian Peninsula in 2012, respectively. In 2019, SARS-CoV-2 was detected in patients with severe, sometimes fatal pneumonia of previously unknown origin; it rapidly spread around the world, and the World Health Organization declared the disease a pandemic on March 11, 2020. SARS-CoV-2 is a β-coronavirus that is genetically related to the bat coronavirus and SARS-CoV; it is a single-stranded RNA virus of which several variants and subvariants exist. The SARS-CoV-2 viral particles bind via their surface spike protein (S protein) to the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 receptor present on the membrane of several cell types, including epidermal and adnexal keratinocytes.1,2 The α and δ variants, predominant from 2020 to 2021, mainly affected the lower respiratory tract and caused severe, potentially fatal pneumonia, especially in patients older than 65 years and/or with comorbidities, such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and (iatrogenic) immunosuppression. The ο variant, which appeared in late 2021, is more contagious than the initial variants, but it causes a less severe disease preferentially affecting the upper respiratory airways.3 As of April 5, 2023, more than 762,000,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been recorded worldwide, causing more than 6,800,000 deaths.4

Early studies from China describing the symptoms of COVID-19 reported a low frequency of skin manifestations (0.2%), probably because they were focused on the most severe disease symptoms.5 Subsequently, when COVID-19 spread to the rest of the world, an increasing number of skin manifestations were reported in association with the disease. After the first publication from northern Italy in spring 2020, which was specifically devoted to skin manifestations of COVID-19,6 an explosive number of publications reported a large number of skin manifestations, and national registries were established in several countries to record these manifestations, such as the American Academy of Dermatology and the International League of Dermatological Societies registry,7,8 the COVIDSKIN registry of the French Dermatology Society,9 and the Italian registry.10 Highlighting the unprecedented number of scientific articles published on this new disease, a PubMed search of articles indexed for MEDLINE search using the terms SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19, on April 6, 2023, revealed 351,596 articles; that is more than 300 articles published every day in this database alone, with a large number of them concerning the skin.


There are several types of COVID-19–related skin manifestations, depending on the circumstances of onset and the evolution of the pandemic.

Skin Manifestations Associated With SARS-CoV-2 Infection

The estimated incidence varies greatly according to the published series of patients, possibly depending on the geographic location. The estimated incidence seems lower in Asian countries, such as China (0.2%)5 and Japan (0.56%),11 compared with Europe (up to 20%).6 Skin manifestations associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection affect individuals of all ages, slightly more females, and are clinically polymorphous; some of them are associated with the severity of the infection.12 They may precede, accompany, or appear after the symptoms of COVID-19, most often within a month of the infection, of which they rarely are the only manifestation; however, their precise relationship to SARS-CoV-2 is not always well known. They have been classified according to their clinical presentation into several forms.13-15

Morbilliform Maculopapular Eruption—Representing 16% to 53% of skin manifestations, morbilliform and maculopapular eruptions usually appear within 15 days of infection; they manifest with more or less confluent erythematous macules that may be hemorrhagic/petechial, and usually are asymptomatic and rarely pruritic. The rash mainly affects the trunk and limbs, sparing the face, palmoplantar regions, and mucous membranes; it appears concomitantly with or a few days after the first symptoms of COVID-19 (eg, fever, respiratory symptoms), regresses within a few days, and does not appear to be associated with disease severity. The distinction from maculopapular drug eruptions may be subtle. Histologically, the rash manifests with a spongiform dermatitis (ie, variable parakeratosis; spongiosis; and a mixed dermal perivascular infiltrate of lymphocytes, eosinophils and histiocytes, depending on the lesion age)(Figure 1). The etiopathogenesis is unknown; it may involve immune complexes to SARS-CoV-2 deposited on skin vessels. Treatment is not mandatory; if necessary, local or systemic corticosteroids may be used.

Morbilliform maculopapular eruption. Histopathology shows mild dermal cell spongiosis and diffuse, predominantly perivascular, dermal-cell infiltration with lymphocytes and numerous eosinophils (hematoxylin-eosin-saffron, original magnification ×100).

FIGURE 1. Morbilliform maculopapular eruption. Histopathology shows mild dermal cell spongiosis and diffuse, predominantly perivascular, dermal-cell infiltration with lymphocytes and numerous eosinophils (hematoxylin-eosin-saffron, original magnification ×100).

Vesicular (Pseudovaricella) Rash—This rash accounts for 11% to 18% of all skin manifestations and usually appears within 15 days of COVID-19 onset. It manifests with small monomorphous or varicellalike (pseudopolymorphic) vesicles appearing on the trunk, usually in young patients. The vesicles may be herpetiform, hemorrhagic, or pruritic, and appear before or within 3 days of the onset of mild COVID-19 symptoms; they regress within a few days without scarring. Histologically, the lesions show basal cell vacuolization; multinucleated, dyskeratotic/apoptotic or ballooning/acantholytic epidermal keratinocytes; reticular degeneration of the epidermis; intraepidermal vesicles sometimes resembling herpetic vesicular infections or Grover disease; and mild dermal inflammation. There is no specific treatment.

Urticaria—Urticarial rash, or urticaria, represents 5% to 16% of skin manifestations; usually appears within 15 days of disease onset; and manifests with pruritic, migratory, edematous papules appearing mainly on the trunk and occasionally the face and limbs. The urticarial rash tends to be associated with more severe forms of the disease and regresses within a week, responding to antihistamines. Of note, clinically similar rashes can be caused by drugs. Histologically, the lesions show dermal edema and a mild perivascular lymphocytic infiltrate, sometimes admixed with eosinophils.


Next Article: