This week’s guest columnist is Dr. Justin Pratt, a Family Practice resident at the University Hospital and Clinics here in Lafayette.
The nurse’s note read “rash.” When I walked into the exam room, the mother’s eyes were wide with fear. ”Doc, over the past 2 days he’s been having a reaction to the antibiotic he got earlier this week. I gave Benadryl this morning and the rash is still there! Is he going to be okay?” Meanwhile, the patient, an 8 year-old boy, was lying in bed laughing at cartoons on TV. The rash certainly wasn’t bothering him much, unlike his mother!
Rashes can be distressing for parents of infants and children. They can appear out of nowhere, cover a large part of the body, and look awful. The good news is that most rashes are not life-threatening and don’t need immediate attention. Some are caused by direct irritation of the skin, some indirectly like with allergies, and some by infections from viruses, bacteria, or fungus.
In the case of the boy I saw that Saturday night, his rash wasn’t a sign of anything bad, though it certainly looked weird. It consisted of flat, paisley-shaped red blotches all over his body. It didn’t hurt, didn’t itch, and he didn’t feel too bad. This rash, called erythema multiforme, turned out to be due not to the antibiotic,but from an infection called mycoplasma, a.k.a. “walking pneumonia.” We changed his antibiotic to cover that infection, and off he went.
Every year there are about 12 million visits for rashes and other skin concerns. 68% of these are with the patient’s own doctor, leaving 32% to walk-in clinics and Emergency Departments. How do you know if your kid can wait to see their pediatrician, or needs immediate attention?
First, don’t panic at the site of a rash, no matter how much of your child it covers. Rashes are like fevers- the height of the fever and the amount of rash don’t correlate with severity. It’s more about how your child is acting with the rash. If she’s calm, drinking easily, breathing comfortably, and awake and with it, then it’s not an emergency. Give benadryl for the itch, call your doctor for reassurance, and chill out.
This advice about how to respond to your kid’s rash, brings up an experience I had in my last year of medical school. It wasn’t about a pediatric patient- it was ME! I woke one morning after an itchy night. I turned to my wife to ask if she had used a new laundry detergent on our sheets, and was met with a look of shock: “Justin, ARE YOU OK!?!” Besides being a little itchy, I felt fine. ”Look in the mirror! I think you need to go to the hospital now!”
I was covered with a rash from head to waist, my face beet red. A little startling to see, but then I remembered my training. When did it start? During the night I guess. Was I breathing okay? Yes. Were my throat, tongue, or lips swollen? No. Was it getting worse? Didn’t seem so. Did I feel ill or have fever? No. There, no emergency honey.
Was the rash raised and itchy? Yes- thus probably allergic. Was there peeling, crusting, pain, or weeping? No- therefore probably not an infection. Were there tiny red freckles that didn’t blanch when pressed on? No- again not a serious infection. What was different in the past few days? Soaps, detergents, food? Wait, I’d been stung by a hornet yesterday! The rash I had was urticaria, commonly called hives, a delayed reaction to the sting. When I saw my allergist later that day, she prescribed steroids, an antihistamine, and in two days I was better.
When deciding whether your child’s rash can wait for the pediatrician, or needs to be seen immediately, remember the important questions: Does he appear ill (looking past that awful rash!). Is there lip, tongue, or throat swelling? Is she not breathing comfortably? Are there tiny red freckles that don’t blanch when pressed? If yes, proceed to the nearest Emergency Department.
If no to these questions, relax! Give benadryl, tylenol, or ibuprofen for itching, fever, or other discomfort. Call your pediatrician if you need further guidance. Like fevers, rashes are generally not emergencies. Take a deep breath, take two benadryl, and call me in the morning.