Itchy skin – 14 reasons why your child may be scratching

Symptoms and common causes of toddler's itching skin - with and without a rash

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If your toddler or child has an itch, you’re likely to see the streaky red marks where he’s been scratching himself like crazy before he tells you about it. Because of his scratching, the area will probably be raised and red. As it’s his instinct to scratch, it is difficult to stop him.

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“If your child is well in themselves but itching and their skin looks dry then you could try an over the counter emollient (moisturiser) – speak to your pharmacist for advice about these,” says GP Dr Philippa Kaye. “If your child is itching and is unwell then see your doctor and – as always – if your child has a rash which does not go away when a glass is held over it (a non blanching rash) then seek urgent medical advice.”

Here are some possible causes for the itching, and some ways to soothe his skin.

ITCHING ALL OVER

Dry skin

What causes it? A toddler’s skin is more susceptible to being dry than ours because it’s so delicate. Both air conditioning and central heating can cause it as they both rob skin of its natural moisture. If your child goes swimming a lot, the chlorine in the water can also cause their skin to go dry. So does taking a bath: this is because bathing removes a child’s natural oils.

What does it look like? Similar to how an adult’s skin looks when it’s dry: white patches of flaking skin, sometimes red and sore.

What can you do to soothe it? Make bath time shorter. Let him play before you soap him up and don’t put too much bath lotion in the tub. We don’t recommend slippery bath oils, though – better to moisturise his skin with baby-friendly creams after the bath. Applying creams straight after can help lock in the moisture.

If you and your child are keen swimmers, make sure the chlorine doesn’t dry on his skin afterwards. Have a quick wash and put on some moisturiser before you go home.

Make sure to keep him well hydrated. In the wintertime, keep him bundled up from the cold with gloves and scarves while, in the summertime, keep him dressed in cool cotton fabrics that will help wick away sweat.

Allergies – food, plants, fabrics, washing powder

What causes it? Allergies happen when your toddler’s immune system responds badly to a trigger – be that food, pollen, fabric or washing powder. An allergic reaction can cause your toddler to be itchy as well as sneeze, swell up, get a runny nose or wheeze.

What does it look like? When a child gets itchy because of an allergy, it is likely to be because it’s caused a rash. The skin becomes red, inflamed and aggravated.

What can you do to soothe it? Because there are so many different types of allergies, the treatments vary. See our guide on allergies in babies and toddlers to help detect what your child might have. If it’s something like a reaction to washing powder, just change brands and, in the meantime, calm their skin with calamine lotion.

If you can’t easily find out what the allergin is, take your child to the doctor as they will be able to send him for allergy testing. But, if your child’s face starts to swell, take him to a hospital immediately.

Heat rash/prickly heat

What causes it? Heat rash or prickly heat happens when your child sweats more than usual. The sweat glands become blocked and form itchy bumps.

What does it look like? Tiny red bumps or blisters that sting or feel prickly.

What can you do to soothe it? Make sure your child keeps cool and hydrated and wears fabrics that will help wick away sweat, like cotton.

Chickenpox

What causes it? Chickenpox is an infectious common illness, passed on from person to person.

What does it look like? “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,” says the NHS.

What can you do to soothe it? Calamine lotion can help calm the itchiness.

Eczema

What causes it? There is no one cause of eczema, but it’s often hereditary.

What does it look like? Patches of rough, red, and often thick skin that cracks and blisters

What can you do to soothe it? Moisturise your child’s skin daily with emollients and use medicated bath oil.

ITCHY HEAD OR FACE

Head lice

What causes it? Head lice and nits are actually two different things. Nits are the eggs, head lice are the insects that live on the head and hair.

What does it look like? Head lice are dark brown, grey or black and tiny. They live close to the scalp. Nits are brown and the size of a pinhead.

What can you do to soothe it? The itch will only go when they’re gone! You can buy various shampoos from your pharmacist, but make sure to check your child’s head regularly. According to Christine Brown, head lice specialist and former nurse consultant: “Head lice can be very good at evading the comb. They’ve got six legs and move through hair like gibbons through a forest. So when the hair is being combed they simply move to another part of the head.”

Mumps

What causes it? It is a viral infection, common in children.

What does it look like? A painful swelling at the side of the face, under the ears “giving a person with mumps a distinctive ‘hampster face’,” says the NHS.

What can you do to soothe it? If you suspect it, see your GP. Treatment revolves around relieving symptoms: paracetamol or ibuprofen to take temperature down and making sure your child drinks plenty of fluids. The northeast of England’s head of immunisation, Julia Waller, says: “While most people recover from mumps within a week, it can still be a very unpleasant disease.”

Dandruff

What causes it? It is caused by an overproduction of the oil sebum.

What does it look like? Flaky, white or yellow skin gathering in the parting or falling off the hairline.

What can you do to soothe it? Specialist over-the-counter shampoos can quickly get rid of it.

ITCHY BUM

Threadworms

What causes it? Threadworms are small parasites that enter your child’s intestines.

What does it look like? The worms are white and look like a small piece of thread. You’re likely to spot your child scratching his bottom incessantly – especially at nighttime – before you see the worms. But the worms can be seen in your child’s faeces or a few hours after he goes to sleep, visible in his underwear.

What can you do to soothe it? Take your child to your GP who will prescribe mebendazole.

Nappy rash

What causes it? Nappy rash is not just a problem that appears in babies, toddlers who still wear nappies can get it, too. It happens because of the wetness from their wee or poo.

What does it look like? It appears as a red, inflamed patch on his bottom. The skin can also appear cracked or blistered.

What can you do to soothe it? It’s important to treat it with specialised cream because it can turn into yeast or a bacterial infection if it is left alone.

LOCALISED ITCHING

Hives, welts or nettle rash

What causes it? Most commonly, an insect bite, an allergy, or a nettle sting causes hives, welts or nettle rash. It is also known as Urticaria.

What does it look like? “The rash is made up of raised marks in the skin that are known as weals or hives. They are usually very itchy and range in size from a few millimetres to the size of a hand.,” says the NHS.

What can you do to soothe it? Antihistamines medication should help – but make sure you speak to your pharmacist about what is suitable for toddlers.

Fungal infection such as ringworm

What causes it? Ringworm is a contagious fungal infection. “It is caused by the same fungus that causes athlete’s foot,” says Dr Tim Clayton, a consultant paediatric dermatologist. “Anyone who comes into contact with an infected person or animal can catch it.”

What does it look like? A round, red patch of skin that can be itchy and scaly.

What can you do to soothe it? Antifungal creams and special scalp shampoos.

Moles

What causes it? They are spots on the skin. Most people have a few. While moles in toddlers are perfectly normal – if your child complains that his mole is itchy, take him to the GP to make sure everything is ok.

What does it look like? A brown spot on the skin. But the NHS advices watching out for the following:

A- Asymmetry: Normal moles or freckles are completely symmetrical. If you were to draw a line through a normal spot, you would have two symmetrical halves. In cases of skin cancer, spots will not look the same on both sides.

B- Border: A mole or spot with blurry and/or jagged edges.

C- Color: A mole that is more than one hue is suspicious and needs to be evaluated by a doctor. Normal spots are usually one color. This can include lightening or darkening of the mole.

D- Diameter: If it is larger than a pencil eraser (about 1/4 inch or 6mm), it needs to be examined by a doctor. This is includes areas that do not have any other abnormalities (color, border, asymmetry).

E- Elevation: Elevation means the mole is raised above the surface and has an uneven surface.

What can you do to soothe it? If your child’s mole itches, take him to the doctor to make sure the mole is still normal.

Warts and verrucas

What causes it? They are caused by the human papilloma virus, HPV, and cause your child’s body to create an excess of keratin, a hard protein, which is what makes the texture of warts and verrucas rough. Verrucas spread quickly in swimming baths, as the virus survives in the humid environment, and children are often barefoot. Warts are very contagious and close skin-to-skin contact with an infected person means your child is likely to catch them.

What does it look like? A raised, small, rough lump.

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What can you do to soothe it? They often go away without treatment, although it can take months or years for them to fade. If the wart is itchy, it is likely that it is becoming irritated, so you should take your child to the GP to get treatment, such as freezing the wart off.

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