Merck Manual

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Rashes in Children


Deborah M. Consolini

, MD, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital

Reviewed/Revised Nov 2022
Topic Resources

A rash is an abnormal change in the texture or color of the skin.

  • Known causes of rashes include irritation, allergies, drugs, and bacterial, fungal, or viral infections.

  • Rashes include redness, white or yellow scales, and pearly pimples, bumps, or cysts.

  • Rashes may itch, be irritating or painful, or cause no symptoms.

  • Rashes that require treatment can be helped by gentle cleansers, moisturizing ointments, antibiotic or corticosteroid ointments, and/or anti-itch drugs.

Rashes in infants and young children are not usually serious and can have various causes. Irritating substances, drugs, allergic reactions, and disorders that cause inflammation can cause a rash.

Some common causes of rashes in infants and young children include the following:

Diaper rash (diaper dermatitis)

Diaper rash is a bright red rash that usually develops when the infant's skin comes in contact with a diaper that is soiled by urine, stool, or both. The moisture on the infant's skin causes irritation. Typically, the areas of the skin that touch the diaper are most affected.

Diaper rash can also be caused by infection with the fungus Candida Candidiasis (Yeast Infection) Candidiasis is infection with the yeast Candida. Candidiasis tends to occur in moist areas of the skin. This skin infection may cause rashes, scaling, itching, and swelling. Doctors examine... read more Candidiasis (Yeast Infection) , typically causing a bright red rash in the creases of the skin and small red spots. Less often, diaper rash is caused by bacteria.

Breastfed babies tend to have fewer diaper rashes because their stools contain fewer enzymes and other substances that can irritate the skin.

Diaper rash does not always bother the child. It can be prevented or minimized by using diapers that are made with an absorbent gel, by avoiding restrictive plastic diapers or pants that trap moisture, and by frequently changing diapers when they are soiled.

The main treatment of diaper rash is to frequently remove or change the child's diapers. The child's skin should be washed gently with mild soap and water. Often the rash clears up with these measures alone. Use of a skin moisturizer and an ointment that creates a barrier between the child's skin and the diaper, such as zinc, petroleum jelly, or vitamin A and D ointment, may help. Antifungal cream may be necessary if the doctor diagnoses a Candida infection. Antibiotic cream can be used if the rash is caused by bacteria.

Cradle cap (seborrheic dermatitis Seborrheic Dermatitis Seborrheic dermatitis is chronic inflammation that causes yellow, greasy scales and dandruff to form on areas of the skin that have a high number of oil glands such as the scalp and face, along... read more Seborrheic Dermatitis )

Cradle cap is a red and yellow, scaling, crusty rash that occurs on an infant's head. A similar rash can occur occasionally in the infant's skinfolds. The cause is not known. Cradle cap is harmless and disappears in most children by 6 months of age.

Cradle cap can be treated by regularly shampooing with selenium sulfide shampoo and massaging mineral oil into the scalp to help loosen the crust before shampooing. The crust may be worked off with a fine comb. Cradle cap that does not get better with these measures may need further treatment, such as corticosteroid creams.

Atopic dermatitis Atopic Dermatitis (Eczema) Atopic dermatitis (commonly referred to as eczema) is chronic, itchy inflammation of the upper layers of the skin that often develops in people who have hay fever or asthma and in people who... read more Atopic Dermatitis (Eczema) (eczema)

Atopic dermatitis is a red, scaly, and itchy rash. The rash tends to appear in patches that come and go, often worsening with cold, dry weather. Infants tend to develop red, oozing, crusted rashes on the face, scalp, diaper area, hands, arms, feet, or legs. Older children tend to develop one or a few spots, usually on the hands, upper arms, in front of the elbows, or behind the knees.

Atopic dermatitis tends to run in families and in many cases is thought to be due to a gene variation that affects the skin's ability to retain moisture and provide protection against bacteria, irritants, allergens, and environmental factors. This weak skin barrier function likely also triggers the immune response that leads to the inflamed skin and itch. Most children outgrow atopic dermatitis, but for others it is a life-long condition. Children with severe cases may intermittently develop infections in areas where they have scratched and torn the skin.

Treatment of atopic dermatitis includes use of skin moisturizers, gentle soaps, humidified air, corticosteroid creams, and anti-itch drugs. Efforts to avoid triggers of a child's allergies may help alleviate the condition.

Viral infections that cause a rash

Viral infections often cause rashes in young children. Rashes caused by roseola infantum Roseola Infantum Roseola infantum is a contagious viral infection of infants or very young children that causes a high fever followed by a rash. Roseola infantum is caused by infection with human herpesvirus-6... read more Roseola Infantum and erythema infectiosum Erythema Infectiosum (Parvovirus B19 Infection) Erythema infectiosum is a contagious viral infection. In children, it causes a blotchy or raised red rash on areas of the body and a slapped-cheek red rash on the face along with mild illness... read more Erythema Infectiosum (Parvovirus B19 Infection) (fifth disease) are harmless and usually go away without treatment. Rashes caused by measles Measles Measles is a highly contagious viral infection that causes various cold-like symptoms and a characteristic rash. Measles is caused by a virus. Symptoms include fever, runny nose, hacking cough... read more Measles , rubella Rubella Rubella is a contagious viral infection that typically causes in children mild symptoms, such as joint pain and a rash. Rubella can cause death of a fetus or severe birth defects if the mother... read more Rubella , and chickenpox Chickenpox Chickenpox is a highly contagious viral infection with the varicella-zoster virus that causes a characteristic itchy rash, consisting of small, raised, blistered, or crusted spots. Chickenpox... read more Chickenpox are less common because children receive vaccines Childhood Vaccinations Vaccination protects children against many infectious diseases. Vaccines contain either noninfectious components of bacteria or viruses or whole forms of these organisms that have been weakened... read more that prevent these infections, but they may occur in unvaccinated children.

Other causes of rashes

Molluscum contagiosum Molluscum Contagiosum Molluscum contagiosum is a contagious skin infection caused by a poxvirus that causes pink or white, dome-shaped, and smooth or waxy bumps to form. This infection is caused by a poxvirus. The... read more Molluscum Contagiosum is a cluster of flesh-colored pearly pimples or bumps caused by a viral skin infection that usually disappears without treatment. However, the virus that causes this infection is contagious.

Milia Cutaneous Cysts Cutaneous Cysts are small pearly cysts on the face of newborns. They are caused by the first secretions of the child's sweat glands. Like newborn acne, milia require no treatment and disappear a few weeks after birth.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Generic Name Select Brand Names
A Mulsin, Aquasol A, Dofsol-A
Anti-Dandruff, Dandrex, Exsel , Selenos, SelRx, Selseb, Selsun, Selsun Blue, Tersi Foam
Fleet, Kondremul, Liqui-Doss, Muri-Lube
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