July 5, 2019

Common summertime rashes

You return from a camping trip only to find your 7-year-old is complaining that her legs are really itchy. The red, swollen skin could mean poison ivy or poison oak. Should you be concerned?

While it can be hard to live with the itching sometimes, rashes — also called dermatitis — are often not something to worry about, though there are times when they might need medical treatment.

Most parents are well aware of what rashes look like: redness, spots on the skin, itchy, sometimes there are blisters or little pimples and some swelling. And there are some common types:

  • Eczema: Also known as atopic dermatitis. It is common in kids and often appears as dry, bumpy areas around the elbow and knees, though can be red, scaly and swollen on other parts of the body such as the calves or arms.

  • Irritant contact dermatitis: This is caused by coming in contact with something that irritates the skin like a chemical or soap. The spot is often red, swollen and itchy.

  • Allergic contact dermatitis: This can appear as a red, scaly or crusty rash when the skin comes into contact with an allergen such as nickel in jewelry or hair dye.

These types of rashes are not contagious. Poison ivy, oak and sumac, while not contagious, can be spread from person to person or from touching the fur of an animal that was in contact with the plant. The reason is that the rashes are caused by the oil of the plant, called urushiol, which can linger on the skin or animal's fur for some time until it is washed off.

Hives, which are another type of rash, appear as pale red bumps on the skin. They can be serious because they can be a sign of an allergic reaction requiring immediate medical attention. The trigger could be food, medicines, a bug bite or even a virus.

Soothing a rash

While it is hard — especially for little ones — it's important not to scratch or scrub the affected area. If it's poison ivy or oak, it's even possible for it to spread if the oils are still on the skin. A few things to try to ease the discomfort include:

  • Add oatmeal to a bath, or use a commercial brand of soap meant to help ease itching

  • Don't cover the rash if possible and wear breathable clothing

  • Don't scrub or scratch the affected area and pat it dry after a bath or shower

  • Special moisturizers can help in cases of eczema to help trap moisture in the skin and soothe the itching

When to seek care

Most rashes will improve within a week. If there's no improvement, then it's time to see a doctor. You should also seek medical care if:

  • Your child also has a fever

  • Your child looks/feels sick

  • There are tiny red dots that don't fade when pressed

  • There are bruises not related to injuries


Often, prevention is the best medicine, but that can be hard — particularly if your child has sensitive skin. A few things to try are:

  • Teach your child what poison ivy and poison oak look like ("leaves of three, let them be") and if your dog is out in the woods, consider giving them a bath since the oils of poison ivy and oak can linger on the skin and fur. And keep in mind, it can be up to five days before a poison ivy rash appears.

  • Avoid harsh soaps or laundry detergents if your child has sensitive skin. Many brands make sensitive-skin versions.

  • Use sunscreen. Sometimes sunburn can make skin itchy and dry so take precautions when out in the sun.

  • For children with eczema, identifying triggers can help such as pollen, animal dander, dry winter air, harsh soaps, certain foods and stress. In the winter months, taking a bath and then immediately putting on an oil-based lotion can help trap in moisture to minimize the outbreak.

Care Anywhere

If you're not sure what might have caused a rash, it's best to check in with a provider. One convenient way is through a video visit through UW Health's Care Anywhere. You don't have to leave home and can see a provider when it's convenient for you and your child.