What is my child’s rash? How to identify 10 rashes and tell if they’re serious

It can be very worrying when a child gets a rash. Here experts outline what the more common rashes look like and when to seek urgent help.
What is my child’s rash? How to identify 10 rashes and tell if they’re serious

Seeing a rash on a child’s skin can be very worrying for many parents, who often fear it could be a sign of a deadly disease like meningitis.

Fortunately, such cases are not common, and consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson Dr Anton Alexandroff reassures: “Most rashes in children aren’t serious and parents shouldn’t worry about them too much. Serious rashes are rare.”

But  if the child is unwell or if there’s swelling of lips, tongue or breathing problems, you should see a doctor urgently or go to A&E.

And Dr Sweta Rai of the British Association of Dermatologists warns parents not try to diagnose rashes from internet pictures.

“It can be tempting for parents to use the internet to diagnose a rash – we strongly advise against this,” she says.

“There’s such an array of potential causes, and similar types of rash, that even for a professional it is very hard to tell the difference between them without careful study and many years of experience.”

Rashes have many causes (Thinkstock/PA)
Rashes have many causes (Thinkstock/PA)

1. Viral rashes

Treatment

Many viral infections resolve within a few days without treatment, but symptoms can be managed by encouraging fluid intake and taking paracetamol for pain relief and fever control.

Always consult a doctor if you’re worried about a rash on your child and if spots are accompanied by other symptoms such as drowsiness, unresolving fever, a floppy body, confusion or difficulty awakening, severe headaches, very pale skin, seizures, shortness of breath, sharp chest pain that feels worse with breathing, or coughing up blood.

Is it contagious?

Yes. Although incubation periods vary between viruses, children are generally most infectious in the days prior to rash outbreak, continuing until a few days after the rash has emerged.

2. Meningitis

A child with meningitis would normally be very unwell, with possible reddish/purple spots which may look like tiny fresh bruises. Dr Alexandroff says if the rash doesn’t fade when the glass test  is done – by pressing a clear glass against the skin – this is very serious and immediate medical attention is needed.

Treatment

Go to an A&E department immediately.

Is it contagious?

Bacterial meningitis can be contagious.

3. Slapped cheek syndrome

Treatment

It should clear without specific treatment after a few days, and children should rest and drink plenty of fluids, as with other viruses. Pregnant women exposed to slapped cheek syndrome should see a GP.

Is it contagious?

The virus is contagious before a rash develops, but not once it’s visible. Unless a child feels unwell, there’s no need for them to stay off school once the rash has developed.

4. Chickenpox

A toddler with chickenpox (Thinkstock/PA)
A toddler with chickenpox (Thinkstock/PA)

Chickenpox is usually mild and most children feel better within a week or so, although some can become more seriously ill and need to see a doctor. It can be more serious in pregnant women and newborn babies. There’s no cure but symptoms can be relieved by the same treatment as other viruses, although ibuprofen shouldn’t be given to children with chickenpox as it can make them very ill.

Topical creams can be applied directly onto the rash to help reduce itching and soothe the skin, or children can take a suitable oral antihistamine.

Is it contagious?

Chickenpox is highly contagious and can make some people very ill, so it’s important to try and avoid spreading it. Children can be infectious for several days before spots appear and for five days or more after, and they should stay away from nursery or school until all the blisters have dried and scabbed over, usually five or six days after the rash appears.

5. Measles

Treatment

Contact your GP if you suspect your child has measles. There’s no specific treatment and it usually improves within seven to 10 days. If the symptoms are causing discomfort, children should be treated as with other viral illnesses.

Is it contagious?

Children should stay away from school for at least four days from when the measles rash first appears. Avoid contact with vulnerable people such as young children and pregnant women.

Children can avoid catching measles by having the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.

This is usually a mild illness with small red spots appearing on the face and spreading to other parts of the body. Other symptoms include swollen glands and a cold-like illness. It’s of serious concern if a pregnant woman catches it in early pregnancy as it can cause birth defects in the baby.

Treatment

Contact your GP if you suspect rubella. There’s no specific treatment, and the condition usually improves within seven to 10 days. Symptoms can be eased in the same way as with other viruses.

Is it contagious?

Yes. It’s important to reduce the risk of spreading the infection to others, so children should avoid school for four days from when the rash first develops.

7. Impetigo

Treatment

Impetigo may get better without treatment within a few weeks, although it spreads easily if left untreated. It can be cleared by antibiotics,  which can reduce the length of the illness and the risk of spreading.

Is it contagious?

Most people are no longer contagious after 48 hours of treatment or once their sores have dried and healed. It’s important children stay away from school until then.

8. Eczema

Dry /inflamed patches of skin typically form on creases of elbows and behind knees, but can occur anywhere on the body.

Treatment

Eczema normally responds well to the regular use of emollients or moisturisers. Steroids are useful in managing flare-ups but should only be used as prescribed by a health professional. Specific bath additives, shower gels or soap substitutes may also help.

Is it contagious?

Eczema isn’t contagious.

 9. Allergic wheals (urticaria)

Treatment

Antihistamines can be helpful in reducing symptoms. Most often the rash settles quickly over 24 hours but if there’s associated swelling of the face, lips or any breathing problems, call 999.

Is it contagious?

Allergic wheals aren’t contagious.

10. Neonatal heat spots

More in this section

Lifestyle
Newsletter

The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up