Most children experience a rash at one time or another, and many disappear without treatment. Others may be accompanied by fever, itchiness and other symptoms. Here is a guide to some common rashes in kids.
Rashes with no fever or itching
Milia (blocked oil glands)
Up to half of newborn babies develop small white spots called milia on their face, especially on the nose. These are just blocked pores, and they’re not itchy or contagious. They usually clear up without treatment within a few weeks.
Many newborns develop a blotchy red skin reaction called erythema toxicum, which can appear between 2 days and 2 weeks after birth. Flat, red patches or small bumps often first appear on the face and spread to the body and limbs. The rash is harmless, not contagious, and will clear after a few days or a week.
Some babies get acne on their cheeks and nose in the first few months of life. These pimples normally clear up without any treatment, usually in a few months, but sometimes it can take a year.
Nappy rash is an inflammation of the skin in the nappy area that looks red, sore and inflamed. Nappy rash is caused by a number of things, including urine or poo irritating the baby’s skin.
To avoid nappy rash, keep the nappy area clean and dry with frequent nappy changes and nappy-free time. You can help protect the skin by putting on a barrier cream such as zinc or soft white paraffin at each nappy change.
Persistent nappy rash can be treated with a medicated cream. Don’t use talcum powder or antiseptics to treat nappy rash. If your baby’s skin has developed a fungal infection, you’ll need to use an antifungal ointment. Ask your doctor or pharmacist for advice.
Erythema multiforme is a rash triggered by an infection, medication or an illness. Red spots develop on the hands or feet before spreading across both sides of the body (over a day or so). The spots are not usually itchy, but might become raised or blistered.
Your baby might feel unwell or have a mild fever before the rash appears. Erythema multiforme is not contagious, and usually clears up without treatment in 3 to 6 weeks.
Keratosis pilaris (‘chicken skin’)
Keratosis pilaris is a harmless condition where the skin becomes rough and bumpy, as if permanently covered in goose pimples. These bumps most commonly occur on the upper arms and thighs. You can try several things to help the rash to clear up.
Rashes that might be itchy
Eczema causes the skin to become itchy, red, dry and cracked, especially in the creases at the knees and elbows. It is usually treated with corticosteroid creams to reduce inflammation, and moisturisers to stop the skin from drying out.
Eczema is a long-term condition that can show up when babies are only a few months old. Certain triggers, such as viral infections, soap and pool chlorine, can cause symptoms to appear.
Ringworm is a contagious, mild skin infection that causes a ring-like red rash with a clear centre. It can occur almost anywhere on the body, although the most common areas are the baby’s scalp, feet and groin.
Ringworm is caused by a fungus, not a worm, and is usually treated with over-the-counter antifungal creams. You should keep your child home from childcare or school until a day after you have started treatment to prevent spreading the infection.
Prickly heat (heat rash)
Heat rash might appear if your baby gets hot in a humid environment. The rash shows as tiny red bumps or blisters on the skin, which can be very itchy. Cooling your baby down and avoiding humidity is the best way to counteract heat rash, which usually clears within 2 to 3 days without treatment.
Impetigo (school sores)
Impetigo is a highly contagious bacterial infection of the skin. It causes red sores and blisters that form a yellow crust. It is very common in children aged 2 to 6, for whom it is not usually serious, but it can be dangerous for newborn babies. It is common in children who have scabies.
If your child has impetigo, you should see your doctor, who might prescribe an antibiotic cream, ointment or tablet. This should clear the infection within 7 to 10 days. You should keep your child home from childcare or school and away from young babies until the sores have dried up, usually a few days after treatment starts.
Hives is a raised, red, itchy rash that can appear on any part of the body at any time, but is common on the chest, stomach and back, as well as the throat and limbs. Hives usually disappears within a few days without any treatment. Your pharmacist can advise you about over-the-counter medications to treat hives. If the rash doesn't go away, you should see your doctor.
It begins with a single pink or tan patch on the chest or back. Oval red patches then appear on the chest or back and limbs over the next weeks. They might be itchy, and your child might feel tired and unwell.
The exact cause of pityriasis rosea is unclear, and experts believe it is probably not contagious. The rash usually clears up within a couple of months without treatment.
If you are pregnant, pityriasis rosea can in rare cases lead to complications. See your doctor if you are pregnant and come into contact with a child who has pityriasis rosea.
Molluscum contagiosum is a viral skin infection that is spread by skin-to-skin contact or by sharing swimming pool water or towels.
Molluscum contagiosum spots look like pimples and grow into round pearly white lumps, usually 2 to 5 millimetres in size. They can be itchy. Usually they heal without treatment within 6 months, but it might take longer.
Rashes with fever
Slapped cheek disease (fifth disease)
Slapped cheek disease is a viral infection that mainly affects pre-school and school-age children. It typically causes a bright red rash on both cheeks that spreads as a ‘lacy’ rash on the body and limbs. Occasionally, it causes fever.
Slapped cheek disease is usually mild and clears up in a few days without treatment. The child is contagious before the rash appears, but not once it has appeared.
The virus can affect a pregnant woman, potentially causing a type of anaemia in her unborn baby. It can also cause miscarriage. If you suspect you or your child has slapped cheek disease, you should avoid contact with women who are, or might be, pregnant.
Hand, foot and mouth disease
Hand, foot and mouth disease is a mild but highly contagious viral illness that causes a rash on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. It is not the same as the foot-and-mouth disease that affects farm animals.
The disease is common in childcare and kindergartens. Your child might feel unwell and have a fever and blisters on the hands and feet and in the mouth, and also in the nappy area, that last 7 to 10 days. Children with hand, foot and mouth disease should stay away from childcare or school until all the blisters have dried up.
Hand, foot and mouth disease usually resolves on its own without major problems but in rare cases it can be more serious especially in people whose immune system is not functioning normally or pregnant women. These rare problems include infections of the brain and heart muscle and miscarriage in pregnant women.
Roseola infantum is a contagious viral infection that can cause cold-like symptoms and a high fever. Kids with roseola infantum have raised pink spots that start on the chest, stomach and back and spread to the limbs. The child is contagious before the rash appears, but not after. The rash usually lasts 3 to 5 days.
The high fever may last for a few days. Roseola infantum can also cause some children to have a febrile convulsion. If your child has a convulsion (fit), call triple zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance. Febrile convulsions are scary to see but are generally not harmful.
When to seek help
Many babies develop a skin rash in their first days or weeks as their sensitive skin adapts to a new environment. Most rashes are harmless and go away on their own. But if your baby seems unwell, or if you’re worried, you should see your doctor. They can advise about the cause and whether treatment is necessary.
Whatever their age, you should take your child to the doctor if they have a rash and persistent high temperature, cold or cough symptoms or swollen neck glands.
Treatment of common childhood rashes
If you think your child might be contagious, they should stay at home. Keep them away from school, childcare and other children. You should also keep them away from women who are pregnant, or who might be pregnant, since some childhood infections can cause serious problems in unborn babies.
Your pharmacist can advise you on treating the symptoms of common rashes. For example, you can use over-the-counter creams to prevent itchiness.
If you are concerned about your child, call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 to talk to a maternal child health nurse, or call Healthdirect on 1800 022 022 to talk to a registered nurse. Alternatively, contact your doctor.
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Last reviewed: January 2020