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Serious childhood rashes

8-minute read

Take your child to the doctor urgently if they have a rash together with a high temperature, cold or cough symptoms, or swollen neck glands.

Key facts

  • Many rashes are harmless, but a rash on your child’s skin might indicate a serious condition that requires urgent medical treatment.
  • You can protect your child from some of these diseases, including measles, chickenpox and some types of meningococcal disease, with routine immunisations.
  • 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.
  • If your child has a meningococcal rash, go immediately to the closest hospital emergency department.

Is my child’s rash serious?

Many rashes are harmless, but a rash on your child’s skin might indicate a serious condition that requires medical treatment. You should take your child to the doctor if they have a rash together with a high temperature, cold or cough symptoms, or swollen neck glands.

You can protect your child against some of these diseases, including measles, chickenpox and some types of meningococcal disease, with routine vaccination.

Learn more about common childhood rashes that are not serious.

What is meningococcal rash?

If you think your child might have meningococcal rash, seek medical attention immediately or call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

Meningococcal rash is a sign that your child is infected with meningococcal bacteria, which is not common but very serious. This is a medical emergency, as meningococcal disease can be life threatening.

A meningococcal rash appears as tiny red or purple pinpricks that spread into blotches. The rash is a non-blanching rash. This means that when you press on the rash it doesn’t disappear.

Your child might also:

  • have a fever
  • refuse to eat or drink
  • be unhappy or drowsy
  • be sensitive to light
  • have pale or blotchy skin

These symptoms can appear before the rash.

If your child has meningococcal disease, they will likely be admitted to hospital so they can be monitored and given intravenous (IV) antibiotics.

What is measles?

Measles is a highly contagious viral disease that can lead to serious complications. It is rare in Australia, but travellers from overseas or unvaccinated people can spread measles. You can protect your child from catching measles by making sure they are up to date with their regular childhood vaccinations.

At first, measles can seem like just a cold. Your child might have a cough and sore, watery eyes. They might also have tiny white spots inside their mouth. After 3 or 4 days, a rash of red, slightly raised spots appears. These are not itchy.

Call your doctor if you think your child may have measles. To avoid infecting others, your doctor may ask you to come to the clinic when other patients are not are around. They may also take you and your child to a separate room.

Talk to your pharmacist or doctor about treatments that can treat the fever, coughing and other symptoms.

Children with measles are contagious for a week after the spots appear. During this time, keep your child home from childcare or school, and away from other people as much as possible.

What is scarlet fever?

Scarlet fever is a contagious infection of the throat caused by the bacteria Group A streptococcus. Scarlet fever can easily be treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics will help prevent the bacteria from spreading to other parts of the body and causing serious health problems.

Scarlet fever usually begins with a sore throat, fever, swollen tonsils and swollen glands in the neck. Within 1 to 2 days, a rough, red rash that looks like sunburn develops on the body and limbs. It usually lasts 3 to 5 days. Your child might also develop a very red tongue and feel unwell.

If you think your child has scarlet fever, take them to your doctor. With antibiotics, they will usually recover quickly. Keep them away from childcare or school until at least 24 hours after starting antibiotic treatment.

What is chickenpox?

Chickenpox is a highly contagious viral infection. It is usually mild, but can lead to serious complications. Vaccination is the best way to protect your child from catching chicken pox.

Chickenpox rash develops as red, itchy spots that turn into fluid-filled blisters. There may be many blisters or just a few. The blisters dry up and form scabs (usually within 5 to 6 days), which then drop off. Your child might feel unwell and have a mild fever. Scratching the spots can cause scars, but you can treat them with calamine lotion to reduce the itch.

Take your child to the doctor if their blisters get infected or if your child becomes increasingly unwell.

Children are contagious until all the blisters have dried up. During this time, keep your child home from childcare or school. Try to keep them away from newborn babies, people with a weak immune system. If you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant, stay away from people with chickenpox, as your unborn baby could be affected.

What is psoriasis?

Psoriasis is a long-term condition caused by an overactive immune system. It may develop as only a few dry, red, scaly patches (known as 'plaques') on the skin, or plaques that cover large areas of the body. Psoriasis is not contagious.

Psoriasis can come and go, or it can be a life-long condition. There is no cure, but it can usually be controlled with treatment. Severe psoriasis can be difficult to manage and is associated with other health problems such as Crohn’s disease, diabetes and heart disease.

If you think your child might have psoriasis, see your doctor. They may refer you to a dermatologist who can help you manage the condition.

What is monkeypox?

Monkeypox was first reported in Australia in May 2022. It is a rare but potentially serious viral illness. The illness usually begins with fever, swollen lymph nodes, headache and muscle, back and joint pain. A rash usually develops 1 to 3 days after the fever begins. The rash tends to be mainly on the face, arms and legs.

The virus is transmitted from person to person through close contact with skin sores, through respiratory droplets (for example, by coughing and sneezing) or through contaminated sheets and towels.

Infants, young children, older people and people with a weak immune system are at risk for developing severe disease.

If your doctor thinks you have monkeypox, they will ask about your symptoms and examine you. They may also send you for tests. Medical experts are currently developing guidelines on the use of vaccines and treatments for monkeypox in Australia.

If you have returned to Australia after travelling overseas to areas with cases of monkeypox and you think you may be at risk, contact a doctor immediately.

Not sure what to do next?

If you are still concerned, check your symptoms with healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.

The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).

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

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: June 2022


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