Skin Conditions in Children: How to Soothe Your Child's Skin
Like adults, children and babies can be affected by a range of skin conditions that cause symptoms such as rashes, sores, blisters, itching and inflammation.
Often these symptoms aren’t anything to worry about – though if your child has a rash, a high temperature and seems generally unwell, you should take them to your GP. You should also get immediate emergency medical help if your child has a certain type of rash that can be a sign of meningitis.
Meningitis is an infection of the membranes that protect the brain and spinal cord, and can be very serious if it isn’t treated quickly. It can affect anyone of any age, but it’s most common in babies, young children, teenagers and young adults.
The rash of meningitis usually starts out looking like small, red pinpricks, but spreads quickly and turns into red or purple blotches. If you press the side of a clear glass against the rash, it doesn’t fade. Other symptoms that can be a sign of meningitis, such as a high temperature, a stiff neck, confusion, light sensitivity or if they have unusually cold hands and feet (take your child to A&E or call 999 if you notice any of these along with a non-fading rash).
Most other skin conditions in children are not usually medical emergencies, but they can be troublesome for you and your child, and may have an effect on your quality of life. Always see a doctor if you’re worried about any symptoms your child is experiencing. In the meantime, here’s a guide to some common conditions that can cause skin symptoms in children, including what you should look out for and how the symptoms are treated.
Childhood atopic eczema
One of the most common skin conditions in children is eczema. According to the National Eczema Society, cases of atopic eczema – the most common type of eczema – have increased significantly in children during the last 50 years, with around 15 - 20 per cent of UK children currently affected (ii). Indeed atopic eczema is more common in children than in adults, says the NHS, often developing before a child reaches their first birthday (iii).
However the symptoms of atopic eczema can improve significantly or even clear up completely in some children as they get older. The National Eczema Society suggests that 65 per cent of children will be free of eczema by the time they reach seven years old, and 74 per cent by the time they are 16 (iv).
Atopic eczema causes hot, itchy and inflamed skin that's sometimes also red and irritated. Young children can have patches of dry, scaly and even weeping skin anywhere on their bodies, though in older children it usually affects certain parts of the body such as face, wrists, elbows, knees and ankles.
The symptoms can often be caused by a combination of things, including:
Allergies to house dust mites, pet hair, saliva and skin, pollen and certain foods (cows’ milk, eggs, peanuts, soya and wheat are typical examples)
Cold and dry weather
Dampness and mould
Soaps, shampoos and bubble baths, as well as detergents such as washing-up liquid
Chorine and other chemicals added to swimming pool water
Clothes fabrics (wool and synthetic materials, for instance)
How you can help
There are several things you can do to make a child with eczema more comfortable. These include distracting them with play instead of telling them to stop scratching, and keeping their nails short and trying scratch mittens or all-in-one sleep suits at night. Dressing them in cotton clothing as often as possible may also be useful, as can avoiding woollen clothing or clothes made from synthetic materials. And since soap and detergents can affect your child’s skin, try to avoid using them wherever possible too.
It’s also a good idea to try to keep your child’s bedroom from overheating at night, using cool, light bedding – 100 per cent cotton bedclothes are ideal. Wash their bedding frequently at 60C too, and switch to a different washing powder to see if it makes any difference to their symptoms.
Meanwhile, the most common treatments for childhood atopic eczema are emollient creams, lotions, bath products and ointments, all of which soothe the skin (these are available over the counter at pharmacies). Topical steroid creams and lotions can help when your child’s skin is inflamed, but it’s important to make sure you use these correctly (ask your doctor or pharmacist for treatment advice and follow the instructions on the leaflet).
Children who have difficulty sleeping because their skin is so itchy may also be treated with wet wraps or bandages. If your child needs these, ask your doctor or nurse to teach you how to apply them properly.
Find out more in our guide to eczema treatment and support.
Viral skin conditions
There are several types of skin conditions caused by viruses that can affect children as well as adults. Some cause an infection of the skin itself, while others are reactions to a virus in the body. Some can cause a rash all over, while others causes rashes limited to certain parts of the body.
Here are some of the ones that can be common in children:
The UK vaccination programme has made measles much less common than it used to be – according to the Vaccine Knowledge Project at the University of Oxford, Public Health England estimates that 20 million cases of measles have been prevented in the UK since the vaccine was introduced in 1968 (v). However, unvaccinated people are still at risk, especially if they travel to countries with large measles outbreaks.
Caused by a highly infectious virus, measles can be unpleasant and, in a few cases, lead to serious complications such as pneumonia and encephalitis (infection of the brain).
If your child has measles they will have a red-brown blotchy rash, typically starting on the head or upper neck and then spreading throughout the rest of the body. A few days before the rash appears they may experience a high temperature, runny nose, cough, sneezing, sore eyes and small grey-white spots on the inside of their cheeks. The infection usually clears within about seven to 10 days.
If you think your child may have measles, phone your GP as soon as possible (don’t take your child to the surgery as they could infect others). There is, however, no treatment for measles, though you can give your child pain relief medicine that’s appropriate for their age to relieve a high temperature as well as aches and pains. Never give aspirin to children younger than 16 years of age.
Other things you can do to make your child more comfortable include giving them plenty of fluids to drink so they don’t become dehydrated. If their eyes are sensitive to light, draw the curtains and keep their room dark. Also keep them off school for at least four days from when the rash first appears.
Also called rubella, German measles is rare these days, again thanks to the NHS vaccination programme (the MMR vaccine protects against measles, mumps and rubella, but you must have had two doses of the vaccine for it to be as effective as possible).
German measles isn’t usually serious in children. However, it can cause significant problems if it’s passed to a woman who’s in the early stages of pregnancy (up to 20 weeks), increasing her risk of having a miscarriage or having a baby born with problems with their sight, hearing, heart or brain.
The rubella rash is red or pink and spotty, typically starting behind the ears and spreading to the head, neck and body. Other symptoms include a high temperature, coughing, sneezing, runny nose, headache, sore throat, sore eyes and joint pain. It usually gets better in about a week, with the rash appearing two to three weeks after infection (your child will be infectious a week before their symptoms start and for four days after the rash appears).
Like measles there’s no treatment for German measles, but you can relieve your child’s high temperature, headache and other aches and pains by giving them pain relief medicine (make sure you give the correct type and the correct dose for their age).
Your child will also need plenty of rest as well as lots of fluids to make sure they don’t become dehydrated. Keep them off school for five days after the rash first appears, and most importantly try to avoid any contact between them and women who are or may be pregnant. Call your GP if you think your child has rubella, but don’t take them into the surgery unless your GP suggests it.
Most children have chickenpox at some stage – usually before they reach their 10th birthday (though you can get it at any age). Caused by the varicella-zoster virus, chickenpox is spread easily – you can catch it by simply being in the same room as someone who’s been infected, as well as by touching infected clothes or bedding. Learn more about chickenpox and shingles here. There is a chickenpox vaccine available, but it’s only given on the NHS in cases where someone with a weakened immune system might catch it.
The first symptom of chickenpox is an itchy red rash that can appear anywhere on the body (it can spread everywhere or just stay in one area). The spots become fluid-filled blisters that can burst and form into scabs. Once all the spots have crusted over – about five days after they start to appear – you’re no longer infectious.
Other symptoms can include a high temperature, loss of appetite, general unwellness and aches and pains. It can be miserable for children, but in adults the symptoms can be much more severe.
If your child has chickenpox you should keep them at home until all their spots have turned into scabs. You can also give them paracetamol – but not ibuprofen – to help make them feel more comfortable, and lots of fluids to avoid dehydration (ibuprofen can cause complications in chickenpox cases and some other skin infections).
Also try using over-the-counter products such as cooling skin gels or creams, or bathe your child in cool water to reduce itching. Antihistamine medicines can stop itching too, but speak to a pharmacist first to find out if they’d be suitable for your child.
Slapped cheek syndrome
Also called fifth disease or slapped cheek disease, this is common in children and is often a mild illness. Caused by the parvovirus B19 virus, it mostly affects children aged 3 - 15, though anyone of any age can get it by coming into contact with someone with the infection. By the time the rash appears, however, the condition is usually no longer infectious.
Slapped cheek syndrome gets its name from the bright red but painless rash that appears on one or both cheeks on the face. Before the rash, your child may not feel well for a few days, having symptoms such as a high temperature, headache, runny nose and sore throat. One to three days after the cheek rash appears they may also develop a fainter rash on their body – this time, however, the rash can be itchy.
According to the NHS slapped cheek syndrome is common in children, and should clear up on its own within three weeks (vi).
Your child shouldn’t have to see their GP if they have slapped cheek syndrome, but there are some things you can do to ease their symptoms. If they have aches and pains and/or a high temperature, you can give them age-appropriate paracetamol or ibuprofen. You can also help soothe itchy skin by applying a cooling gel or moisturiser. Also make sure your child gets plenty of rest as well as fluids to avoid dehydration.
Skin conditions caused by bacteria
Some conditions affecting the skin are caused by bacteria and are more common in children than in adults, though they can affect people of all ages.
Poor and overcrowded living conditions during the 19th and early 20th centuries made scarlet fever a common illness and a leading cause of death in children (vii). The disease almost disappeared during the latter part of the 20th century, but several countries – including the UK – have more recently seen a re-emergence of scarlet fever, with around 87 per cent of cases seen in children under the age of 10 (viii).
An infection caused by the Streptococcus bacterium (usually group A Streptococcus), peak season for scarlet fever is December to April.
Scarlet fever is usually a mild illness but it’s also highly infectious. The main symptoms to look out for include a fine, pinkish or red body rash that feels like sandpaper when you touch it. Other symptoms – which usually start a few days before the rash appears – include a sore throat, headache, high temperature and a white coating or tiny white spots on the tongue. The rash doesn’t usually affect the face, but scarlet fever can sometimes cause flushed cheeks.
If you think your child has scarlet fever call your GP’s surgery before you take them in. The good news is that scarlet fever can be treated easily with antibiotics – usually penicillin – and the earlier you treat it the less likely your child will be to develop complications such as pneumonia or spread the infection to others. You should also keep your child at home and away from others for at least 24 hours after they start taking their antibiotics.
Things you can do to help relieve your child’s symptoms include giving them cool fluids to drink as well as soft foods to eat if they have a sore throat. The rash can be itchy, so try applying calamine lotion to the affected areas to make it more comfortable or ask a pharmacist if they can recommend an antihistamine medicine for your child, as antihistamines can stop itching too.
This is a contagious skin infection mostly caused by the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, though other bacteria can also be responsible for it, including Streptococcus pyogenes and meticillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). More common in warm humid weather, impetigo can cause an infection in healthy skin or in skin that’s already affected by another condition such as eczema, psoriasis or even a cut. Children – and adults – are also more likely to develop impetigo if they have diabetes or problems with their immune system.
Most cases of impetigo affect young children, but thankfully it’s not usually serious and your child should recover within seven to 10 days with treatment.
The first sign of impetigo is red sores or blisters that burst quickly and leave crusty golden patches (according to the NHS they look a bit like cornflakes stuck to your skin (ix)). The first areas to be affected are often the face and hands, with the blisters – which can be itchy and sometimes also painful – spreading to other parts of the body. If scratched, the crusts can fall off, leaving behind skin that’s red, sore and inflamed.
Impetigo often clears without any treatment after a few weeks, but it’s a good idea to get it treated to help prevent the disease spreading to others. If your GP diagnoses impetigo in your child they will usually prescribe an antibiotic cream, though if this doesn’t stop the infection spreading or if your child has a severe case of impetigo, they may also need to take antibiotic tablets.
If your child is treated for impetigo they stop being contagious 48 hours after they start taking or using the medicine their doctor prescribed for them. If they don’t have treatment, they only stop being contagious when the all patches on their skin dry out and crust over.
While you wait for the infection to clear up keep your child at home away from others. Try to keep their skin clean and dry by covering them with gauze bandages or loose clothing – though try not to touch their sores or patches and encourage them not to scratch. Wash your hands frequently and wash your child’s bedding and towels at a high temperature (60C). It’s also a good idea to also wash your child’s toys to stop the infection spreading or getting worse (use detergent and warm water).
A healthy balanced diet will help support your child’s skin as well as their overall health. You may also want to consider giving them a supplement to make sure they get all the nutrients their growing body needs, especially if they’re a fussy eater.
A good-quality multivitamin and mineral supplement designed for children will help give them all the important vitamins and minerals, including those needed for healthy skin such as zinc. Make sure any multivitamin you choose includes vitamin D, as according to the government organisation Public Health England, children should take a vitamin D supplement daily (x):
Children aged one to four years should have a daily 10mcg vitamin D supplement.
All babies under a year old should have a daily 8.5 - 10mcg vitamin D supplement (those who have more than 500ml of infant formula a day do not need any additional vitamin D as formula is already fortified.
Other nutrients to look for in a good children’s multivitamin and mineral supplement include iron, vitamin C, vitamin A and B vitamins. You may find it easier to give them a multivitamin that dissolves in water to make a fizzy drink, especially if they find it difficult to swallow tablets. Another option is to give them multivitamin chews that are designed specifically for children (look for sugar-free chews that won’t harm their teeth).
You may also want to consider giving your child an omega 3 supplement, since studies suggest several skin conditions may benefit from either eating foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids – such as those found in oily fish – or by taking an omega-3 supplement (xi). Oily fish include sardines, pilchards, salmon, mackerel and fresh tuna. Alternatively, look for an omega 3 supplement that’s suitable for your child’s age – chewy tablets that don’t taste of fish (and have no fishy after taste) may be ideal if your child won’t eat oily fish.
If you’re in any doubt about giving nutritional supplements to your child, choose a supplier that can advise you about safe and effective options and can point you in the right direction.
This article looks at some of the most common skin conditions that affect children but there are others, such as hives (urticaria) and scabies. You can read about skin health in general by visiting our pharmacy health library.
Available online: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/meningitis/symptoms
Available online: www.eczema.org/documents/111
Available online: http://www.eczema.org/children-eczema
Available online: http://vk.ovg.ox.ac.uk/vk/measles
Available online: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/slapped-cheek-syndrome
Available online: https://patient.info/skin-conditions/viral-rashes/scarlet-fever
Available online: https://www.bmj.com/content/362/bmj.k3005
Available online: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/impetigo
Available online: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/phe-publishes-new-advice-on-vitamin-d
Kiefer. D. & Pantuso. T.. Omega-3 fatty acids: An update emphasizing clinical use. Agro Food Ind Hi Tech. (2012 July/August). 23(4): 10–13. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3890980
Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.
Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.