What Are Petechiae? - Definition, Causes & Treatment

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Have you ever seen one, or maybe even many, reddish-purple spots on your skin? In this lesson, learn about the colored skin lesions called petechiae, their causes, and how they can be treated.

What are Petechiae?

Look all over your skin. You're sure to see a great collection of spots on it. Maybe you see freckles, maybe you see moles, or perhaps you've got liver (age) spots.

What you shouldn't see are widespread, pinpoint, red dots called petechiae, (singular: petechia). If you do, see a doctor right away.

Petechiae (peh-TEA-key-eye) are reddish-purple dots of pinpoint to pinhead size (< 3mm), and occur when small blood vessels called capillaries break, and blood pours into the skin. Petechiae do not blanch under pressure and they are flush with the surface of the skin.

Although the term petechiae most often refers to such lesions (abnormal tissue changes) in the context of the skin or mucous membranes of the body, do note that the term has been used in the context of other organs and tissues of the body.

Numerous petechiae in the mouth caused by strep throat
Numerous Petechiae in the Mouth

Causes of Petechiation

Petechiation, a state where petechiae are present, can occur for a multitude of reasons.

If you note petechiae on your face, neck, or chest, then this may be the result of something like prolonged straining due to weightlifting, childbirth, coughing, vomiting, or crying. Prolonged straining can pop capillaries and cause blood to pour into the skin to form petechiae. Physical injury from car crashes, a blow to the face, and strangulation can cause petechiation. So can severe sunburn.

If that hasn't happened to you, then note that petechiation may occur as a result of the use of certain medications, like warfarin and heparin, two kinds of anticoagulants. These are drugs that prevent blood from coagulating, or clotting.

Other medications that may cause petechiation in certain instances include:

  • Penicillin, an antibiotic (which is a drug that kills bacteria)
  • Naproxen, an anti-inflammatory medication
  • Atropine, a drug sometimes used to treat issues with the eyes, heart, and other problems.

If you're not taking any of these or other drugs that may cause petechiation, then an infectious cause may be the reason why you see petechiae on your body, especially if it's widespread.

Infectious causes of petechiation include all sorts of viral, bacterial and fungal infections, such as:

  • Cytomegalovirus infection
  • Scarlet fever
  • Rocky Mountain spotted fever
  • Strep throat
  • Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome
  • Mononucleosis

Just to name a few.

I can hear it now. You don't have any of that either. Well, I'm sorry to say then, that the petechiation could have many other causes. These include:

  • Vasculitis, an inflammatory disorder of blood vessels
  • Thrombocytopenia, a low platelet count
  • Vitamin K deficiency
  • Leukemia, a type of cancer

The Treatment of Petechiation

The treatment of petechiation all depends on the underlying cause.

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