What's that rash? Find out what you need to know about pityriasis rosea, a bizarre—but harmless—skin rash.

By Christin Perry
Photo illustration by Sarina Finkelstein; Adobe Stock

Childhood is full of strange rashes and other maladies. But the good news is the vast majority of them are pretty harmless. Like pityriasis rosea, a widespread rash that's often mistaken for much scarier rashes like scarlet fever or measles. Despite being listed as a common rash, we've found most parents haven't heard of it.

If that's you, then you've come to the right place. We've got you covered—not in red spots, of course—but on everything you need to know about this strange rash.

What is Pityriasis Rosea?

According to Dr. Viseslav Tonkovic-Capin, a Board-certified Dermatologist and Dermatopathologist, pityriasis rosea is a red and scaly rash of unknown cause affecting individuals between the ages of 10 and 30. It's often localized to the abdomen and upper extremities, like shoulders and thighs, and doesn't appear to be contagious. In some cases, the pityriasis rash is mildly itchy.

What Causes Pityriasis Rosea

For the most part, it's unknown what causes pityriasis rosea.

"There are some theories that it's caused by human herpesvirus 6 and 7," says Tonkovic-Capin. Those are the same family of viruses that cause ailments like Epstein-Barr virus, roseola and cytomegalovirus. In fact, Pityriasis rosea is often preceded by symptoms of a mild respiratory virus, which supports that theory.

What Pityriasis Rosea is NOT

Despite the fact that scientists are a bit fuzzy on what exactly causes this condition, the following are definitely not pityriasis rosea causes: fungal infections, mites (like in scabies or lice) or bacterial infections. So for the most part, if your little one brings home a case of pityriasis rosea, there isn't much to worry about; it's a pretty harmless condition.

Symptoms of Pityriasis Rosea

Since the symptoms of pityriasis rosea may resemble other conditions, always consult your pediatrician for a diagnosis. However, pityriasis rosea generally starts with what's called a herald patch (sometimes called a mother patch). That's a fancy way of saying that the first thing you'll notice is one quarter-sized rashy patch, which most often appears on the upper thigh or upper abdomen.

Several days later, a widespread rash with many smaller patches begins to cover the back, abdomen and upper extremities. After a few weeks, the rash will dissipate on its own.

Are There Treatments for Pityriasis Rosea?

Whenever something is even slightly amiss with our little ones, it's natural for us to want to fix it right away. Sadly, there isn't a specific pityriasis rosea treatment. But don't worry, that just means this harmless rash will go away on its own without complications, and your little one will be back to normal before you know it.

"There are no definitive treatments, but there are a few home remedies that seem to help," says Dr. Brittany Odom, a pediatric urgent care physician. "Taking lukewarm baths (not hot baths), seems to soothe the skin."

Try adding some oatmeal or cornstarch to the water for added relief, then following up with a gentle, anti-itch lotion like Sarna or Aveeno.

According to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), other treatments your doctor may recommend based on the severity of your child's rash include:

  • Medicated lotions and creams (to soothe the itching)
  • Medications by mouth (to soothe the itching)
  • Ultraviolet exposure (under a doctor's supervision)
  • Cool compresses (to soothe the affected skin)
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