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Itchy skin in babies and children

7-minute read

If your child has itchy skin and any of these symptoms: shortness of breath, rash, swelling of the face, lips or tongue, they may be having a very serious allergic reaction. Call triple zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance. After that, use an adrenaline autoinjector (Epipen or Anapen) if one is available. Continue to follow the steps of an ASCIA allergy action plan if the child has one.

Key facts

  • If your child has itchy skin, also known as pruritus, the skin may look normal and healthy, or it may have a rash.
  • Itchy skin is usually caused by skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis, or it may be caused by allergic reactions, burns, infections, illness or some medical conditions.
  • It’s important to treat the condition causing your child’s itchy skin, and your doctor may recommend a way to manage symptoms, for example, with emollients (moisturisers), corticosteroid creams or antihistamines.
  • Applying moisturiser daily or when skin is dry, wearing loose cotton clothing, having lukewarm and short showers or baths and avoiding overheating can help prevent itchy skin.
  • If itchy skin is very severe, it could cause skin infections, disturb sleep and cause your child to be distressed.

What is itchy skin?

Itchy skin (also known as pruritus) in children is very common. It can be uncomfortable and cause them to want to scratch their skin. It is usually a symptom of skin disorders, infections or other conditions. Your child’s skin can look normal, or it may have a rash.

What are symptoms of itchy skin?

If your child’s skin is itchy, they may also:

  • have a rash on their body that may or may not be serious
  • have dry or bumpy skin
  • feel discomfort or burning
  • feel that the itchiness worsens at night
  • feel itchy all over their body, or only in certain parts of their body

These symptoms often differ between children, depending on what is causing their itchy skin.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

When your child’s skin feels itchy, they will feel a need to scratch it. Scratching their skin damages it. The damage to their skin makes it even more itchy. This is known as the ‘itch-scratch-itch’ cycle. This cycle can also cause the skin to become thicker, scaly and red. It can become difficult for your child to break this cycle.

What causes itchy skin?

Often, itchy skin is caused by a skin condition or an infection. Although less commonly, it may also be caused by allergic reactions, burns, infections, illness or some medical conditions.

Common skin conditions that can cause itchy skin in children:

  • atopic dermatitis (a type of eczema) is the most common cause of itchy skin in children
  • contact dermatitis — your child’s skin can flare up and become itchy after touching something that irritates it
  • hives (urticaria) are pink itchy skin rashes, that may be small or large, and sometimes are mistaken for mosquito bites

Infections that can cause itchy skin in children:

  • bacterial infections such as impetigo
  • viral infections such as chickenpox
  • parasitic infection such as scabies
  • fungal infections such as tinea

Other reasons why your child may have itchy skin include:

  • burns — scalds or sunburns
  • allergic reactions
  • insect bites
  • some medicines
  • some medical conditions

Sometimes, during a serious allergic reaction to a food or a medicine, the first symptom your child can develop is very itchy hives.

Read more on common childhood rashes and serious childhood rashes.

When should I see my doctor?

If your child has itchy skin and any of these symptoms: shortness of breath, rash, swelling of the face, lips or tongue, they may be having a very serious allergic reaction. Call triple zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance. After that, use an adrenaline autoinjector (Epipen or Anapen) if one is available. Continue to follow the steps of an ASCIA allergy action plan if the child has one.

Your child should see a doctor if they have itchy skin and:

  • it developed suddenly
  • it is causing them distress and affecting their quality of life
  • they have signs of infection — red or warm to touch
  • they have fever and a rash

If your child is unable to see their doctor, and is otherwise well, you can also visit your local pharmacist. They can check your child’s rash and recommend an appropriate treatment.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How is itchy skin diagnosed?

Your child’s family doctor, paediatrician or dermatologist (skin specialist) can diagnose itchy skin by:

  • examining their skin and asking questions about their symptoms and medical history
  • taking a swab of their skin if they suspect the itch is caused by an infection or infestation
  • recommending blood, urine or stool tests if they suspect the itch is caused by a general health problem

Based on your child’s situation, their doctor will decide the best way to diagnose them.

How is itchy skin treated?

There are many treatment options for itchy skin, such as:

  • creams — moisturisers, steroid creams or ointments
  • oral medicines — antihistamines or other medicines

Ask your pharmacist to recommend a moisturiser without fragrances, dyes or preservatives.

Can itchy skin be prevented?

Depending on what is causing your child’s itchy skin, you may be able to prevent it.

Tips to prevent your child from having itchy skin:

  • Moisturise your child’s skin with a recommended emollient.
  • Avoid soaps, bubble baths and shower gels because they can dry out your child’s skin — use a soap-free wash instead.
  • Avoid long or hot showers or baths.
  • Wear loose cotton clothing.
  • Avoid overheating.
  • Keep fingernails short to prevent skin damage caused by scratching — try using cotton gloves overnight.
  • Be SunSmart to prevent sunburn.

If the itch is caused by a specific condition, treating the condition can help prevent the itch.

Itch-scratch-itch cycle

Tips to help your child avoid the itch-scratch-itch cycle include:

  • deep breathing, relaxation techniques
  • distraction — playing a game, massage
  • put a soft, cool and wet towel over their itchy area
  • pat or pinch the itchy skin rather than scratching it

Chose a strategy that is appropriate to your child’s age and maturity.

Complications of itchy skin

As your child scratches their skin, they can develop sores that can become infected.

Itchy skin can also affect your child’s sleep, mood, quality of life, performance at school and social and family interactions.

Resources and support

Learn more on the ASCIA website about how itchy hives can be part of an allergic reaction to foods, medicines or something else.

Read about skincare for babies on the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne website.

For more information about progressive familial intrahepatic cholestasis, see the Liver Foundation website.

Do you prefer to read in languages other than English?

The Royal Children’s Hospital has factsheets about eczema in Arabic, Chinese and Vietnamese.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: March 2024


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