October 13, 2020

Got Skin Problems? How You Can Tell When a Specialist Is Best

Know whether you need a dermatologist or primary care doctor

skin rash on neck

From poison ivy to severe acne, figuring out which specialist to go to may be tricky, especially if it’s urgent. Sometimes it’s difficult to get in to see a dermatologist quickly, so in the meantime, should you go to or video call your primary care physician instead?


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“Your primary care doctor can likely handle most simple things,” says dermatologist Anthony Fernandez, MD, PhD. “However, if you suspect a more serious problem, it’s important to find a dermatologist.”

When to see a primary care doctor

“You should definitely see your primary care provider first for simple, common skin problems,” says Dr. Fernandez. “That’s the best place to start.”

Anything with a systemic component, or something that affects a significant percentage of the body, should be seen by a dermatologist to get an answer quickly. Primary care doctors can treat mild acne, rosacea, warts, minor rashes, bug bites, simple cysts, athlete’s foot, dandruff and mild, benign lesions.

If their treatments don’t clear up the problem, it’s time to consult a specialist.

When to see a dermatologist

If a rash or other skin problem covers more than 10% of your body, consult a dermatologist immediately, especially if you have fever, joint aches, muscle pain, difficulty swallowing or you can’t sleep.


“Talk to a dermatologist for any ulcers that won’t heal after a week or two,” he says. “These open sores can lead to serious infections.”

Don’t take the mild appearance of a new skin condition lightly, either. A skin problem is sometimes the first sign of a significant, systemic autoimmune disease, such as lupus. Diagnosing skin inflammation can also reveal inflammation in your organs, including the lungs, kidneys or liver.

Dermatologists can offer:

  • Faster diagnosis: If you suspect a serious problem, but start with your primary care doctor, you may wait longer for a diagnosis. In serious cases, this increases the risk of more severe organ damage, potentially leading to acute respiratory distress syndrome or significant damage to your kidneys or liver. Even if a skin-related symptom is mild, you can have a pattern of rash that a dermatologist can recognize immediately that is worrisome.
  • Scar prevention: Dermatologists will treat lupus, scalp conditions associated with hair loss and severe acne aggressively enough so that they don’t lead to scarring.

“As advanced as cosmetic procedures are, there’s no definitive way to reverse scarring,” says Dr. Fernandez. “So, the longer the problem goes on, the more extensive permanent damage can become.”

Ultimately, seek medical advice when you first notice a problem. When the skin condition is one symptom of a larger, more serious problem, doing so will limit possible permanent skin or internal organ damage. The Skin Care Foundation recommends seeing your dermatologist once a year for a skin exam to check for anything out of the ordinary and to answer any questions you may have.


What to do if you have an urgent issue

If you have an urgent issue, getting a dermatology appointment can sometimes be tough. To get ahold of a dermatologist, Dr. Fernandez suggests this approach:

  • Call your dermatologist and discuss your symptoms in detail.
  • If you can’t get in to see them right away, call around and find another dermatologist who can see you sooner.
  • Keep in touch with your first choice to watch for cancellations.
  • See your primary care provider and ask them to reach out to your dermatologist.

Some offices, particularly those in academic medical centers, offer same-day appointments for patients with urgent problems. Otherwise, for serious problems, you can expect to get in within two weeks. As a last resort, you can seek assistance in the emergency department.

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