Spot That Rash: Causes and Cures of Rashes

It's scary when your child's skin is suddenly red and itchy. This guide will help you figure out the cause and the cure. The pictures aren't pretty, but you'll be glad you looked.

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    Contact dermatitis

    Eww ... what's that? Red bumps that can form weeping blisters or dry, cracked red patches often where the skin was exposed to an offending substance, appearing immediately or, if it's an allergic reaction, days later

    How'd it happen? Common culprits: soap, detergent, lotion, perfume, cosmetics, jewelry, latex items, metals (especially nickel), chemicals, and poisonous plants

    The fix* Cool compresses can dry out the blisters and a topical or an oral corticosteroid and/or an antihistamine such as Benadryl should help with swelling and the itch. The rash can last up to several weeks and occasionally longer.

    See a doctor... If, after two or three days, the rash is not getting better or worsens, or if your child seems very uncomfortable. Should the rash not improve after a few days under a pediatrician's care, you may be referred to a dermatologist or an allergist.

  • Custom Medical Stock Photo; Biophoto Associates

    Atopic dermatitis (eczema)

    Eww ... what's that? Reddish patches; small raised bumps; and thickened, cracked, or scaly skin, often showing up on the face and in the creases of the elbows or knees

    How'd it happen? Genetics, since some kids with eczema are missing a protein in the skin that prevents excessive dryness. About 15 to 20 percent of young kids develop it (often as babies); as they age it can become less severe. Roughly half outgrow it.

    The fix* Short lukewarm baths with fragrance-free cleanser will help keep skin moist, along with liberal use of a doctor-recommended lotion, such as Eucerin or Cetaphil, and a topical corticosteroid.

    See a doctor... If you're not seeing improvement after a couple of weeks. And if your doctor's recommendations aren't helping after another two weeks, she may suggest you visit a dermatologist or an allergist for long-term care.

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    Fifth disease

    Eww ... what's that? A bright-red rash that often resembles a slapped cheek or a sunburn and then spreads to the trunk, arms, and legs

    How'd it happen? This viral infection tends to target young school-age kids. It's transmitted through secretions from coughs and sneezes, and is probably no longer contagious once the rash appears.

    The fix* It starts with a fever; you can treat with acetaminophen or ibuprofen. The rash can itch -- a topical corticosteroid or an antihistamine such as Benadryl may help. Symptoms often clear up within two weeks.

    See a doctor... If you're unsure of a diagnosis or if the medications are not helping with the symptoms.

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    Hand, foot, and mouth disease (HFMD)

    Eww ... what's that? Red, often painful, blister-like bumps on the tongue, gums, and inner cheeks; a red rash -- perhaps with blisters -- on the palms, soles, and buttocks

    How'd it happen? The Coxsackie virus typically causes HFMD, which is common among kids in diapers. The virus lives in an infected person's stool and can occur when an unwashed hand (after a diaper change or a trip to the bathroom) ends up in someone else's mouth.

    The fix* The itch-free rash goes away on its own and symptoms last about a week. HFMD usually comes with a fever and a sore throat, so give acetaminophen or, for babies over 6 months, ibuprofen. Because the mouth sores can sting, avoid salty or spicy foods.

    See a doctor... If your child has a fever above 104°F (or your baby 3 months or younger has a fever of 100.4°F or higher), is in severe pain, exhibits signs of dehydration, or if OTC medications aren't helping with the symptoms.

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    Heat rash

    Eww .. what's that? Tiny red bumps or clear blisters usually on the neck and shoulders and warmer body parts, such as the trunk, in the groin, and in the armpits

    How'd it happen? A warm environment and an overdressed child is a recipe for heat rash. Babies tend to get it more often than older children do because their immature sweat ducts rupture more easily, trapping perspiration under the skin.

    The fix* Keep your kid cool. In hot weather, be mindful of the heat and don't skimp on the AC. Dress your baby in loose-fitting clothes that allow the skin to breathe. Symptoms typically subside within a few days.

    See a doctor... If after three or four days there is no improvement.

  • Fifth Disease Rash
    Fifth Disease Rash
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    Hives

    Eww ... what's that? Small, red, raised bumps or large welts that can stay in one place on the body or may spread all over

    How'd it happen? Hives in young kids are almost always due to an allergy. The actual allergy can be tricky to pinpoint, but consider something recently inhaled, ingested, or touched, as well as bug bites or stings.

    The fix* An antihistamine and a topical corticosteroid can help during the extremely itchy periods, along with cool baths and cool compresses. A typical bout can last up to three or four days -- in rare cases, several weeks.

    See a doctor... If hives last more than a few days. Children with breathing problems due to swelling should be seen by a doctor immediately. If they're still there after several weeks, your pediatrician may recommend testing for allergies and other conditions.

  • Getty Images; Bill Beatty

    Poison Ivy

    Eww ... what's that? A red, itchy, swollen, and blistery rash that often looks streaky and shows up exactly where your child came in contact with the plant

    How'd it happen? Urushiol (the oil in poison ivy) triggers an allergic reaction; if urushiol spreads on the skin after initial contact, so can the rash.

    The fix* Try cool baths and compresses, and calamine lotion. Your child might need a topical corticosteroid, other topical anti-inflammatory medicine, or, in severe cases, an oral corticosteroid to control the itch and swelling.

    See a doctor... If the rash is getting worse (or not getting better) after two or three days or if your child is in pain. If the rash isn't improving after seven to ten days, or if you think it may be infected, see a dermatologist.

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    Roseola

    Eww .. what's that? Pink, patchy areas on the trunk of the body that usually spread to the neck and arms, and sometimes to the legs and face

    How'd it happen? Roseola comes from a virus and occurs mostly in children 6 months to 2 years of age. As with many viral infections, kids can catch it from another child's cough or sneeze.

    The fix* The rash usually doesn't itch, so there's no need for ointments or creams. But treat the rapidly rising fever (103°F+) that precedes the rash with acetaminophen or ibuprofen. The fever typically lasts three to five days followed by two days of the rash.

    See a doctor... If you are unsure it's really roseola, you're concerned about a high fever, or if your child is uncomfortable.

  • Our experts

    Lawrence F. Eichenfield, M.D., chief of pediatric and adolescent dermatology at Rady Children's Hospital-San Diego; Mona Gohara, M.D., associate clinical professor, Yale School of Medicine, department of dermatology; pediatrician Stephen Pishko, M.D., Le Bonheur Children's Hospital; pediatrician Jennifer Shu, M.D.

    Originally published in the August 2014 issue of Parents magazine.

    All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

  • Courtesy of the American Academy of Dermatology

    Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac

    What it is: An allergic reaction to the oily resin in the plants' leaves. Some people are particularly sensitive to it.


    What it looks like: A red, extremely itchy rash with bumps or blisters that usually appear one to two days after your child touches the poison ivy, oak, or sumac plant.


    What to do: Clean the area with soapy water within 30 minutes and wash clothing to prevent spreading. Apply hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion for itching. Call your doctor if the rash involves the face or eyes.



  • Courtesy of the American Academy of Dermatology

    Prickly Heat

    What it is: A rash that occurs when your child is overheated and her sweat glands get plugged. "Babies are prone to heat rashes because their small sweat glands clog easily," says Parents advisor Jennifer Shu, MD, editor-in-chief of American Academy of Pediatrics Baby and Child Health.


    What it looks like: A faint red rash with tiny bumps or blisters that's most common on the forehead, on the trunk, and in skin creases.


    What to do: Keep your child cool and dress her in lightweight, breathable fabrics. Let her skin air out and apply cool compresses and cornstarch to soothe the rash.

  • Courtesy of the American Academy of Dermatology

    Molluscum

    What it is: A viral infection that's spread by skin-to-skin contact or through contaminated pool water, clothing, towels, or toys.


    What it looks like: Small white, pink, or flesh-colored bumps with a dimple in the center. They can become red, inflamed, and sore.


    What to do: Keep the bumps covered with a bandage during the day so your child won't pick or scratch them, which can cause them to spread, says Dr. Shu. The bumps last from a few weeks to several months and usually go away on their own.



  • Courtesy of the American Academy of Dermatology

    Impetigo

    What it is: A contagious bacterial infection that enters the skin through an open cut, a sore, or a bug bite. Impetigo can also appear on healthy skin, typically around the mouth and nose.


    What it looks like: A rash of tiny, fragile blisters that rupture and scab over. "Classic impetigo has a honey-colored crust," says Ellen Schumann, MD, a pediatrician at the Marshfield Clinic, in Weston, Wisconsin.


    What to do Wash sores with antibacterial soap and water, apply a thin coat of antibiotic ointment, and cover with a bandage if possible. See the doctor if the sores spread to other areas of the body or don't improve after a few days.

  • Courtesy of the American Academy of Dermatology

    Swimmer's Itch

    What it is: An allergic reaction to a microscopic parasite often found in rivers, lakes, and oceans.


    What it looks like: Small reddish pimples or blisters that appear within 12 hours of swimming. The itchy rash may last up to a week or longer.


    What to do: Try to prevent it by briskly drying your child's skin with a towel after she swims. "The friction prevents the parasite from getting into the skin," says Dr. Schumann. If she gets the rash, dab it with hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion.



    Originally published in the July 2008 issue of Parents magazine.


    All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.