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Rashes: The Itchy Truth

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Question: What is red and itchy, but can also be bumpy, lumpy, or scaly?

Answer: If you said a rash, you're right!

Types of Rashes

A rash can also be called dermatitis (say: dur-muh-tye-tus), which is swelling (puffiness) or irritation of the skin. It can be red, dry, scaly, and itchy. Rashes also can include lumps, bumps, blisters, and even pimples. Most people have had a rash or two. When you were a baby, you probably had diaper rash!

But some rashes, especially combined with a fever, can be signs of serious illnesses. Hives, also called urticaria (say: ur-tuh-kar-ee-ah), also can be serious because they can be a sign of an allergic reaction and the person may need immediate medical attention.

Hives, which are reddish or pale swellings, appear on a person's body when a chemical called histamine (say: his-tuh-meen) is released in response to an allergen. The trigger could be a certain food, medicine, or bug bite. A virus also can cause hives.

Here are some other common types of rashes:

  • Eczema (say: ek-zuh-muh), also called atopic dermatitis, is a common rash for kids. Eczema can cause dry, chapped, bumpy areas around the elbows and knees or more serious cases of red, scaly, and swollen skin all over the body.
  • Irritant contact dermatitis is caused by contact with something irritating, such as a chemical, soap, or detergent. It can be red, swollen, and itchy. Even sunburn can be a kind of irritant dermatitis because it's red and might itch while it's healing.
  • Allergic contact dermatitis is a rash caused by contact with an allergen (say: al-ur-jun). An allergen is something you are allergic to, such as rubber, hair dye, or nickel, a metal found in some jewelry. If you have nickel allergy, you might get a red, scaly, crusty rash wherever the jewelry touched the skin, like around your finger if you were wearing a ring.

    Urushiol (say: yoo-roo-shee-ol), an oil or resin contained in poison ivy, oak, and sumac, also can cause this kind of rash.

What to Do If You Get a Rash

Some rashes form right away and others can take several days to occur. When a rash appears, you usually know it because it will start to bother you. If you develop a rash, tell a parent or another adult as soon as you can. For instance, you might want to see the school nurse if you are at school.

Try not to scratch. If you do, the rash may take longer to heal and you'll be more likely to develop an infection or scar.

A visit to the doctor is a good idea if you have a rash. Although all rashes may look alike to you, a skin doctor called a dermatologist (say: dur-muh-tol-uh-jist) knows the difference. And knowing which kind of rash you have can help the dermatologist choose the best treatment to heal your rash.

For eczema, the doctor may suggest special moisturizers called emollients (say: ih-mol-yunts). Emollients retain the water in your skin, keeping it soft and smooth while soothing the itchy feeling.

For poison ivy, the doctor may recommend cool showers and calamine lotion. In more severe cases, a liquid or pill medicine called an antihistamine might be needed. It decreases itching and redness.

For rashes that are caused by an allergen, including hives, the doctor will probably want more information. He or she will want to find out which food, substance, medicine, or insect caused your rash or hives. The doctor might recommend a medical test to determine which allergens are causing you trouble. It's important to find this out because the best way to prevent rashes and hives caused by allergens is to avoid the problem food, substance, medicine, or bug.

Rash Prevention

Prevention is also the name of the game when it comes to other kinds of rashes.

  • If a poison plant is your problem, learn what the plant looks like and avoid it. It also may help to wear long sleeves and pants when you're camping or hiking in the woods.
  • If bugs bug you, have a parent help you apply some insect repellent when you'll be going outside.
  • For allergic dermatitis or irritant contact dermatitis, try to avoid that substance. If you are allergic to nickel, wear only nickel-free jewelry. Or if you discover that bubble bath bothers your skin, don't use it.
  • With eczema, stay away from harsh soaps that might dry out your skin. Also, make an effort to moisturize your skin with creams or lotions. Short, cool showers are a good idea, too, because hot showers and baths can further dry out your skin.
  • When it comes to sun, you should always wear sunscreen to avoid a red and itchy sunburn.

Being a kid means getting a few rashes. But now you know what to do if you get that awful itchy feeling!

Reviewed by: Patrice Hyde, MD
Date reviewed: October 2011

License

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses and treatment, consult your doctor.

© 1995–2014 The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth. All rights reserved.

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