Childhood rashes are common and aren't usually a cause for concern. Most rashes are harmless and disappear without the need for treatment.
However, see your GP if your child has a rash and seems unwell, or if you're worried. They'll be able to investigate the cause and recommend any necessary treatment.
This page may give you a better idea about what could be causing the rash, but don't use this to self-diagnose your child's condition – always see a GP for a proper diagnosis.
The most common causes of rashes in children are:
The skin rash of meningitis is also covered on the page. Although meningitis has become less common over recent years, it's important to be aware of the rash and the other signs and symptoms of meningitis.
The causes of skin rashes in babies have a separate page.
Cellulitis is an infection of the deeper layers of skin and underlying tissue. The affected area will be red, painful, swollen and hot. It often affects the legs, but can occur anywhere on the body. Your child will probably also have a fever.
See your GP immediately if an area of your child's skin suddenly turns red, hot and tender. If you can't see your GP on the same day, go to a walk-in centre or minor injuries unit.
Cellulitis can usually be diagnosed by assessing the symptoms and examining the skin. It usually responds well to treatment with antibiotics.
Chickenpox is a viral illness that most children catch at some point. It most commonly affects children under 10 years of age.
A rash of itchy spots turns into fluid-filled blisters. They crust over to form scabs, which after a while drop off. Some children only have a few spots, whereas others have them over their entire body. The spots are most likely to appear on the face, ears and scalp, under the arms, on the chest and belly, and on the arms and legs.
There's no specific treatment for chickenpox, but you can take steps to relieve the symptoms. For example, paracetamol can help relieve fever (don't give aspirin to children under 16), and calamine lotion and cooling gels can be used to ease itching.
Read more about treating chickenpox.
Eczema is a long-term condition that causes the skin to become itchy, red, dry and cracked. The most common type is atopic eczema, which mainly affects children but can continue into adulthood.
Atopic eczema commonly develops behind the knees or on the elbows, neck, eyes and ears. It isn't 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 in eight out 10 cases it develops before the age of five, often before a child's first birthday.
Read about treating atopic eczema.
Erythema multiforme is a skin rash (usually mild) that's caused by an allergic reaction to the herpes simplex virus.
The spots look like targets, with a dark red centre and paler ring around the outside. The hands or feet tend to be affected first, followed by the limbs, upper body and face.
Your child will probably feel unwell and may have a fever, which you should be able to treat with over-the-counter medicine. It may take from two to six weeks before they feel better. See your GP if your child has a rash and seems unwell.
In rare cases, erythema multiforme can be triggered by a reaction to certain medications, such as an antibiotic or anticonvulsant. This more severe form is called Stevens-Johnson syndrome and it can be life-threatening.
Hand, foot and mouth disease
Hand, foot and mouth disease is a common, contagious infection that causes mouth ulcers and spots and blisters on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.
It's most common in young children (particularly those under 10), but it can also affect older children and adults.
There's no cure for hand, foot and mouth disease and it's easily spread, so you should keep your child away from school or nursery until they're better. Your child's immune system will fight the virus and it should clear up after about seven to 10 days.
Make sure your child drinks plenty of fluid, and if eating and swallowing is uncomfortable, give them soft foods, such as mashed potatoes, yoghurt and soup.
Impetigo is a common and highly contagious skin infection that causes sores and blisters. It isn't usually serious and often improves within a week of treatment. There are two types of impetigo – bullous and non-bullous.
Bullous impetigo typically affects the trunk (the area of the body between the waist and neck), and causes fluid-filled blisters that burst after a few days to leave a yellow crust.
Non-bullous impetigo typically affects the skin around the nose and mouth, causing sores that quickly burst to leave a yellow-brown crust.
See your GP if you think your child has impetigo. Antibiotics, in the form of a cream or tablets, will be prescribed. This should reduce the length of the illness to around seven to 10 days.
Keratosis pilaris ("chicken skin")
Keratosis pilaris is a common and harmless skin condition. The skin on the back of the upper arms becomes rough and bumpy, as if covered in permanent goose pimples. Sometimes, the buttocks, thighs, forearms and upper back can also be affected.
Keratosis pilaris typically begins in childhood and gets worse during puberty. Some people find it improves after this and may even disappear in adulthood.
There's no cure for keratosis pilaris, and it often gets better on its own without treatment. However, there are some measures you can take that may improve your child's rash, such as using non-soap cleansers rather than soap, and an emollient to moisturise their skin. Your GP or pharmacist will be able to recommend a suitable cream.
Measles is a highly infectious illness that most commonly affects young children. It's now rare in the UK because of the effectiveness of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.
The measles rash is red-brown blotches. It usually starts on the head or upper neck and then spreads outwards to the rest of the body. Your child may also have a fever and cold-like symptoms.
Call your GP surgery immediately if you think your child has measles. It's best to phone before visiting because the surgery may need to make arrangements to reduce the risk of spreading the infection to others.
Measles usually passes in about seven to 10 days without causing further problems. Paracetamol or ibuprofen can be used to relieve fever, aches and pains (don't give aspirin to children under 16). Also, make sure your child drinks plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
Read more about treating measles.
Molluscum contagiosum is a viral skin infection that causes clusters of small, firm, raised spots to develop 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 experience 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, which means they're unlikely to catch it if they come into contact with it.
Pityriasis rosea is a relatively common skin condition that causes a temporary rash of raised, red scaly patches to develop on the body. Most cases occur in older children and young adults (aged between 10 and 35).
The rash can be very itchy. In most cases, it clears up without treatment in 2 to 12 weeks, although in rare cases it can last up to five months.
Emollients, steroid creams and antihistamines can be used to help relieve the itchiness. The rash doesn't usually leave scars, although the skin can sometimes be discoloured afterwards.
Read more about the treating pityriasis rosea.
Prickly heat (heat rash)
Prickly heat (heat rash), also known as miliaria, is an itchy rash of small, raised red spots that causes a stinging or prickly sensation on the skin.
It occurs when the sweat ducts in the outer layer of skin (epidermis) are obstructed. You can get a heat rash anywhere on your body, but the face, neck, back, chest or thighs are most often affected.
Infants can sometimes get a prickly heat rash if they sweat more than usual – for example, when it's hot and humid or if they're overdressed. It isn't a serious condition and rarely requires any specific treatment.
Psoriasis is a long-lasting (chronic) skin condition that causes red, flaky, crusty patches of skin covered with silvery scales.
The severity of psoriasis varies greatly from person to person. For some people, it's just a minor irritation, but for others it can have a major impact on their quality of life.
There's no cure for psoriasis, but there are a number of treatments that can help improve the symptoms and appearance of skin patches. For example, topical corticosteroids are creams and ointments that can be applied to the skin.
Ringworm is a highly infectious fungal skin infection that causes a ring-like red or silvery patch on the skin that can be scaly, inflamed or itchy.
Ringworm often affects the arms and legs, but it can appear almost anywhere on the body. Other similar fungal infections can affect the scalp, feet, groin and nails.
Ringworm can usually be easily treated with antifungal medicines, which are available from a pharmacy. Ringworm of the scalp can cause scaling and patches of hair loss. It's treated with antifungal tablets, often combined with antifungal shampoo.
Scabies is a contagious skin condition that's intensely itchy. It's caused by tiny mites that burrow into the skin.
In children, scabies is usually spread through prolonged periods of skin-to-skin contact with an infected adult or child – for example, during play fighting or hugging.
The mites like warm places, such as skin folds, between the fingers, under fingernails, or around the buttock creases. They leave small red blotches, which are often found on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet. In infants, blisters are commonly found on the soles of the feet.
See your GP if you think your child has scabies. It's not usually a serious condition, but it does need to be treated. Your GP will prescribe a lotion or cream. Read more about treating scabies.
Scarlet fever is a highly contagious bacterial infection that usually affects children between two and eight years of age. It causes a distinctive pink-red rash, which feels like sandpaper to touch and may be itchy.
It often starts with a sore throat, fever and headache, with the rash developing two to five days after infection. The rash usually occurs on the chest and stomach before spreading to other areas of the body, such as the ears and neck.
Scarlet fever usually clears up after about a week, but see your GP if you think your child may have it. Antibiotics are used to treat it (liquid antibiotics, such as penicillin or amoxicillin, are often used to treat children).
Slapped cheek syndrome
Slapped cheek syndrome – also known as fifth disease or parvovirus B19 – is a viral infection that's common in children aged six to 10.
It causes a distinctive bright red rash to develop on both cheeks. This can look alarming, but it usually clears up by itself in one to three weeks.
Unless your child is feeling unwell, they don't need to stay away from school. Once the rash appears, the infection is no longer contagious. However, it's a good idea to notify your child's school about the infection.
Urticaria – also known as hives, weals, welts or nettle rash – is a raised, itchy rash that can affect one part of the body or be spread across large areas. It's a common skin reaction that often affects children.
Urticaria occurs when a trigger causes high levels of histamine and other chemical messengers to be released in the skin. These substances cause the blood vessels in the skin to open up, resulting in redness or pinkness, and swelling and itchiness.
There are many possible triggers of urticaria, including allergens, such as food or latex, irritants, such as nettles, medicines, and physical factors, such as heat or exercise. Sometimes, a cause can't be identified.
The rash is usually short-lived and mild, and can often be controlled with antihistamines.
Meningitis is an infection of the protective membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord (meninges).
The classic rash associated with meningitis usually looks like small, red pinpricks at first. It then quickly spreads over the body and turns into red or purple blotches.
Seek immediate medical advice if, upon pressing the side of a clear glass firmly against the skin, the rash doesn't fade (see image above).
Read more about the symptoms of meningitis.
You can also use the meningitis symptom alert to help you recognise the signs, which includes a printable checklist.
Page last reviewed: 18/07/2016
Next review due: 18/07/2019