Childhood rashes are very common and are often nothing to worry about. Most rashes are harmless and go away on their own.
However, if your child has developed a rash and seems unwell, or if you're worried, you should see your GP to find out the cause and for any necessary treatment.
The following guide may give you a better idea of the cause of the rash, but do not use this to self-diagnose your child's condition – always see a GP for a proper diagnosis.
This page covers the most common causes of rashes in children, which are:
- prickly heat
- erythema multiforme
- keratosis pilaris ("chicken skin")
- hand, foot and mouth disease
- molluscum contagiosum
- pityriasis rosea
- urticaria (hives)
- slapped cheek syndrome
- scarlet fever
You can follow the links below for more information on these conditions.
The causes of skin rashes in babies are covered separately.
Chickenpox is a mild and common viral illness that most children catch at some point. It causes a rash of red, itchy spots that turn into fluid-filled blisters. They then crust over to form scabs, which eventually drop off. Some children have only a few spots, but in others they can cover the entire body.
Learn more about the symptoms of chickenpox.
Eczema is a long-term condition that causes the skin to become itchy, red, dry and cracked. The most common form is atopic eczema, which mainly affects children but can continue into adulthood.
Atopic eczema commonly occurs behind the knees or on the elbows, neck, eyes and ears. It is not a serious condition, but if your child later becomes infected with the herpes simplex virus, it can cause the eczema to flare up into an outbreak of tiny blisters called eczema herpeticum, and will cause a fever.
About one in five children in the UK has eczema and many develop it before their first birthday.
Find out how to manage your child's eczema.
Impetigo is a highly contagious bacterial infection of the surface layers of the skin that causes sores and blisters. It is not usually serious. There are two types:
- bullous impetigo – which causes large, painless, fluid-filled blisters
- non-bullous impetigo – which is more contagious and causes sores that quickly burst to leave a yellow-brown crust
If you think your child has impetigo, see your GP for a prescription of antibiotic cream, which should clear the infection within 7 to 10 days.
Ringworm is a common and highly infectious fungal skin infection that causes a ring-like red rash on the skin. The rash can appear almost anywhere on the body, with the scalp, feet and groin being common areas.
Ringworm isn't serious and is usually easily treated using creams you can buy from the pharmacy. Ringworm of the scalp can cause scaling and patches of hair loss and is treated with antifungal tablets, often combined with antifungal shampoo.
Prickly heat (heat rash)
A heat rash (prickly heat) may flare up in very young babies if they start to sweat – for example, because they are dressed in too many clothes or the environment is hot and humid.
They may develop tiny red bumps and blisters on their skin, but these will soon clear.
Erythema multiforme is a skin reaction (usually mild) triggered by either:
Red spots that look like targets develop on the hands or feet before spreading across the body. Your child will probably feel unwell and may have a fever, but you should be able to treat these symptoms with over-the-counter medicine. It may take from two to six weeks before they feel better.
In rare cases, erythema multiforme can be triggered by a reaction to medication, such as an antibiotic or anticonvulsant. This is much more severe and can be life threatening.
See your GP if your child has a rash and seems unwell.
Keratosis pilaris ('chicken skin')
Keratosis pilaris is a common and harmless condition where the skin on the upper outer arms becomes rough and bumpy, as if covered in permanent goose pimples. The thighs or cheeks are occasionally affected.
It typically begins in childhood and gets worse in adolescence, around puberty. Some people find it improves after this and may even disappear in adulthood.
There's no cure for keratosis pilaris, but it shouldn't bother your child.
Hand, foot and mouth disease
Hand, foot and mouth disease is a common mild illness caused by a virus. It causes a non-itchy rash and blisters on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. The condition can also cause mouth ulcers and a general feeling of being unwell.
Treatment is usually not needed as the child's immune system clears the virus and symptoms go away after about 7 to 10 days. However, hand, foot and mouth disease is easily spread.
Molluscum contagiosum is a viral skin infection that commonly causes clusters of small, firm, raised spots on the skin.
It commonly affects young children aged one to five years, who tend to catch it after close physical contact with another infected child.
The condition is usually painless, although some children may feel some itchiness. It usually goes away within 18 months without the need for treatment.
Molluscum contagiosum is highly infectious. However, most adults are resistant to the virus, meaning they are unlikely to develop the condition if they come into contact with it.
Pityriasis rosea is a relatively common skin condition that causes a distinctive raised red skin rash for a few weeks, which then spreads across the body. Most cases occur in older children and younger adults aged between 10 and 35.
Pityriasis rosea usually clears up without any treatment within 2 to 12 weeks.
Find out more about the symptoms of pityriasis rosea.
Scabies is an infectious skin condition caused by tiny mites that burrow into the skin. It causes an intensely itchy rash. Children tend to catch it after close physical contact with another infected adult or child – for example, during play fighting or hugging.
The mites like to burrow in warm places on the skin. They leave small red blotches and silver lines on the skin, which may be found on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet. In infants, it's common to find blisters on the soles of the feet.
See your GP for treatment (a lotion or cream) if you think your child has scabies.
Find out more about the symptoms of scabies.
Urticaria (also known as hives) is a raised, red, itchy rash that appears on the skin. It happens when a trigger causes a protein called histamine to be released in the skin. Histamine causes redness, swelling and itching.
Urticaria can be triggered by many things, including allergens (such as food or latex), irritants (such as nettles), medicines, or physical factors, such as exercise or heat. However, usually no cause can be identified.
It's a common skin reaction that's likely to affect children. The rash is usually shortlived and mild, and can often be controlled with antihistamines.
Slapped cheek syndrome
Slapped cheek syndrome (also known as fifth disease) is a common childhood viral infection that typically causes a bright red rash on both cheeks. It usually affects children aged between 6 and 10 years.
Most children won't need treatment as slapped cheek syndrome is normally a mild condition that passes in a few days. Occasionally it can last up to four or five weeks.
Psoriasis is a skin condition that causes red, flaky, crusty patches of skin covered with silvery scales.
For some children affected by the condition it may be just a minor irritation, but for others it has a major impact on their quality of life.
There is no cure for psoriasis, but a range of treatments can improve symptoms and the appearance of the affected skin patches.
Find out more about the symptoms of psoriasis.
Cellulitis is a bacterial infection of the deeper layers of the skin and the underlying tissue. The affected area of skin will be red, painful, swollen and hot. Your child will probably also have a fever.
You should see your GP immediately if an area of your child's skin suddenly turns red, hot and tender. If you cannot see your GP on the same day, you should go to a walk-in centre or minor injuries unit.
Cellulitis usually responds well to treatment with antibiotics.
Find out more about the symptoms of cellulitis.
Measles is a highly infectious viral illness. Anyone can get measles if they haven't been vaccinated or haven't had it before, but it's most common in children aged between one and four years old.
It causes a red-brown spotty rash, which tends to start behind the ears and spread to the head, neck, legs and the rest of the body. Your child will usually also have cold-like symptoms and a fever.
Most childhood rashes are not measles, but you should see your GP if you notice the above signs.
Learn more about the symptoms of measles.
Scarlet fever is an extremely contagious bacterial illness that usually affects children aged two to eight years old. It causes a distinctive pink-red rash, which feels like sandpaper to touch and looks like sunburn.
The illness often starts with a sore throat, headache and a fever, with the rash developing 12 to 48 hours later.
See your GP as soon as possible if you suspect your child has scarlet fever. It can usually be successfully treated with antibiotics and further problems are unlikely.
Learn more about the symptoms of scarlet fever.
Meningitis warning symptoms
The warning signs of meningitis in young children may include:
- becoming floppy and unresponsive, or stiff with jerky movements
- becoming irritable and not wanting to be held
- unusual crying
- vomiting and refusing food
- pale and blotchy skin
- loss of appetite
- a staring expression
- being very sleepy
- a rash of purple or red spots that doesn't fade when put under pressure (for example, by pressing a clear glass against the skin)
Trust your instincts. If you think your child has meninigitis, see your GP immediately or go to your nearest hospital A&E.
Our symptom alert can also help you recognise the signs and includes a printable checklist.
Page last reviewed: 07/08/2014
Next review due: 07/08/2016