Alarmed by that angry red rash splashed across your child's body? Rashes run the spectrum, signaling anything from a mild viral infection to a chronic or even life-threatening illness. Since the list of rashes and their causes is extensive, you may wonder what’s what and when to call the doctor.
First, avoid self-diagnosis. “Viral and allergic rashes both can present as a diffuse, splotchy, blanching, pinkish rash. Because the rashes look similar, it can be impossible sometimes to tell the difference just by appearance,” says dermatologist Reginald B. Henry.
Below are the more common types of childhood rashes and treatments. Check with your family physician or dermatologist for proper diagnosis.
Even the most conscientious, diaper-changing parent may see an uncomfortable, red, puffy rash blossom on baby's bottom. Diaper rash can erupt after a bout of diarrhea, a round of antibiotics, or a switch to solid foods. Change diapers frequently and use wipes without alcohol or fragrances to gently pat the area dry. Treat the rash with a protective barrier of ointment after each diaper change. If baby’s skin appears infected with blisters, oozing discharge, or painful open sores, call your pediatrician.
About 10 percent of infants and children suffer from atopic dermatitis or eczema. This chronic disease is especially common in families with a history of allergies and asthma. According to the National Eczema Association, 65 percent of children with eczema are diagnosed by their first birthday, and 90 percent are diagnosed by age 5. While extremely itchy, eczema is not contagious. It appears as red, scaly, dry skin and can vary in severity.
Physicians generally treat eczema first with an over-the-counter cortisone cream to calm inflamed skin. Throughout the year, treat skin with moisturizers. “Lotions are better in the humid months, ointments in the winter months,” Henry says. “Don’t over-treat your child if the dermatitis isn’t really bothering her.”
Staphylococcal and streptococcal bacteria often cause infections with rashes, including impetigo, scarlet fever (strep throat with a rash), folliculitis, and cellulitis. Bacterial infections are typically treated with antibiotics. Lyme disease is transmitted by tick bites and can cause a bull’s eye rash. If you suspect Lyme (which can take several days to surface), seek medical attention immediately.
Viral-related rashes are splotchy, blanching (disappears when pressed), pinkish-colored, and are usually accompanied by symptoms such as fever, diarrhea, sore throat, and lethargy. Typical childhood viruses that present with a rash include Fifth disease, chickenpox, roseola, and hand-foot-and-mouth disease. Depending on the diagnosis, antiviral medications may be prescribed.
Warts are another viral skin condition seen in kids. Although warts generally resolve on their own, since they are contagious, “We tend to treat them with a spray or liquid nitrogen every one to two weeks until they are gone,” says dermatologist Donna Corvette.
A pimple-like skin rash that’s extremely itchy and contagious could be caused by scabies, which is a mite that burrows into the skin. Because scabies can spread quickly through skin-to-skin contact, your physician may recommend treating the entire family with a topical medication.
The name might make you shudder, but ringworm, a red circular skin rash, is caused by a fungal infection, not a worm. The rash doesn't always itch, but can spread from skin-to-skin contact. Treat with an anti-fungal product.
Rashes like hives are allergic reactions that are typically splotchy, blanching, pinkish, and intensely itchy. A new food or a new medication could be the culprit. Consult with your doctor for diagnosis and treatment. (Seek immediate medical attention if your child has trouble breathing or experiences swelling of the tongue or lips.)
Contact dermatitis like poison ivy can also cause itchy allergic reactions. If exposed to poison ivy, wash effected area with dishsoap to get ride of the plant’s oil. If rash does appear (tight clusters of bumps), treat with an over-the-counter cortisone cream.
For insect bites, try ammonia-containing products like AfterBite Kids®, oatmeal baths, or baking soda compresses. Sarna® lotion or Noxzema® cooled in the refrigerator also help to relieve itching.
Freelance writer Christa Melnyk Hines is the mom of two sons who have sported a variety of questionable rashes over the years. Read more at christamelnykhines.com.