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Rashes

8-minute read

If you or your child has a rash of small, bright-red or purple spots or bruises that do not turn white (blanch) when you push on them, along with a fever, headache, stiff neck or back pain they may have meningococcal infection — go to your nearest emergency department, or call triple-zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

Key facts

  • Rashes are marks or lesions on the skin — they can be red, pink, purple, flat or bumpy, itchy, scaly or pus filled. They can look different on different skin tones.
  • Rashes can be caused by infections, allergic reactions, immune-system problems or by reactions to medicines.
  • Most rashes are harmless and will go away without treatment, but some rashes are more serious and will need to be checked and treated by your doctor.
  • The treatment of rashes depends on the cause, severity and location of the rash.
  • If you or your child has a rash as well as difficulty breathing, wheezing, swelling of the tongue and throat, dizziness or collapse, you should see a doctor immediately, or call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

What are rashes?

Rashes are marks or lesions on the skin. There are many different types of rashes. They can be on any area of the body, they can be localised or widespread, and there are many different causes of rashes. Rashes can be red, pink, purple, flat or bumpy, itchy, dry, scaley, spidery or pus filled. Rashes can last for days to weeks. Most are harmless and will go away without treatment. Somes rashes are more serious and will need to be checked and treated by your doctor.

What causes a rash?

There are many causes of rashes. Rashes can be caused by infections such as STIs allergic reactions, immune system problems and by reactions to medicines. In children, most rashes are caused by common viral infections.

Common types of rashes and their symptoms

Rashes can have different appearances. They can also appear different on different skin tones. Some common skin rashes and their related symptoms include:

  • Medicine allergy can cause a widespread symmetrical rash with pink or red dots that may join in patches. This rash can occur within 2 weeks of starting a new medicine.
  • Contact dermatitis is caused by direct contact of the skin with a substance that you are allergic to. Your skin can appear red, swollen, blistered or dry, and it may be itchy.
  • Eczema (atopic dermatitis) is very common in children but occurs in adults too. It is a disease of the immune system and causes patches of intensely itchy red skin, sometimes with blisters and weepy patches.
  • Psoriasis is a chronic immune disorder that causes red plaques with well-defined edges and silvery white scales. The plaques can be a few millimetres or up to a few centimetres across.
  • Tinea is caused by a fungal infection and looks like a circular or oval patch, often appearing like a red, scaley ring.
  • Shingles occurs due to a reactivation of the chickenpox virus, usually many years after the original infection. Shingles begins with pain or burning of the skin followed in 1 to 3 days by a rash of red raised bumps that then blister and crust over. The rash is usually limited to a narrow area of skin.
  • Hives are pink or red itchy rashes that appear as raised blotches on the skin. The lesions can be the size of a pin head or the size of a dinner plate. Hives can occur independently or more rarely as part of a more serious allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. In anaphylaxis, there will be other symptoms like difficulty breathing or wheezing, cough, swelling of the tongue and throat, dizziness and collapse.
  • Rosacea is a skin condition that causes redness on the face, usually the cheeks, chin and nose.

If you think someone is having an allergic reaction, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance. If you have access to an allergy action plan, follow it, including using an adrenaline autoinjector (such as an EpiPen™ or Anapen™) if you have one.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

How are rashes treated?

The treatment of rashes depends on the cause and severity of the rash. Most rashes in children are viral rashes and need no specific treatment as they will get better on their own. Other rashes may need treatment with one or more medicines, including:

  • prescription creams, such as steroid, antibiotic or antifungal creams
  • oral antibiotics or antiviral medicines
  • other oral medicines, such as antihistamines, steroids or other medicines that suppress the immune system
  • moisturising creams and lotions

Can rashes be prevented?

Some rashes can be prevented. For example, if you have eczema, you can prevent flares by moisturising often as well as avoiding triggers, like stress, allergens, like pollen, and irritants, such as soap or perfumes.

If you have had episodes of contact dermatitis, avoiding the substance that caused the rash can prevent further episodes.

Other types of rashes, like those caused by viruses or problems with the immune system, cannot be prevented.

When should I see a doctor?

If you or your child has a rash as well as difficulty breathing, wheezing, swelling of the tongue and throat, dizziness or collapse, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

If your child has a fever and rash at the same time, or if you think they may have meningococcal or measles, they should see a doctor.

Read more on serious childhood rashes and common childhood rashes on Pregnancy Birth and Baby.

You should also see a doctor if you have a rash that is not going away by itself, is getting worse or spreading.

Image collage showing an image of Meningococcal rash on the right and measles rash on the left.
Left: Measles rash, Right: Meningococcal rash.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

Resources and support

For more information about the symptoms and management of rashes in children, see the Royal Childrens Hospital website.

The Ethnic Communities Council of NSW has produced a series of podcasts on caring for common skin conditions, translated in several languages. Find the episode in your spoken language here.

For information about the symptoms, causes and management of common rashes in adults and children, see the University of Queensland website.

You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: March 2024


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