What causes diaper rashes — and how to prevent them

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Dr. Mona Amin is an In The Know parenting contributor. Follow her on Instagram for more.

Even if an attentive parent is on top of frequent diaper changes, little babes pee and poo so much that the combination of moisture and lack of air on their sensitive skin can still cause diaper rashes.

A diaper rash — which is a common form of red, inflamed skin that appears on your baby’s bottom — can have many causes, from contact irritation to yeast and bacteria. But let’s break down the main causes of diaper rash — and ways to combat different types.

Irritation 

You’ll know a diaper rash is due to irritation if the area is red and inflamed, and the rash is level to the rest of the skin. To treat this type, use a washcloth with water to clean the area and avoid wipes with fragrances or alcohol, as these can irritate chaffed, sensitive skin. For any diaper rash, remember to always pat the area dry. No wiping or swiping!

Air out your baby’s skin as long as you possibly can to dry off any moisture — or use a blow dryer on a cool setting. If you have the time (and patience), consider letting your little one go diaper-free for a bit. Depending on their age, place them in an area that would be easy to wipe clean if they pee or poo and let them explore or play. A great option, for example, is a water-resistant pad or mat outside.

Apply a layer of ointment that contains zinc oxide to the rash before putting the child’s diaper back on. There are tons of options on the market, but my favorites include Aquaphor Baby Fast Relief Diaper Rash Paste, Triple Paste or Desitin.

Yeast and bacteria 

Yeast and bacteria live on our skin in normal, healthy levels. But when irritation magnifies, these can overgrow in the diaper area, causing, you guessed it — a rash.

Urine contains ammonia, which can be harsh on sensitive skin. Feces are acidic, containing various enzymes and bacteria that, when contacted with sensitive skin, can cause rashes to develop on sensitive baby bums. This, combined with the increased moisture of being in a wet diaper, can result in rashes that are yeast-based or bacteria-based. 

A yeast rash can look raised off the skin and can also contain “satellite lesions,” which are areas of raised spots with texture. Bacterial rashes can look like sores or pimples, and can sometimes have a small amount of discharge. For either of these, it’s important to let your child’s clinician know ASAP. 

When to call the doctor

Often, a rash can snowball and may need medical attention. Check with your child’s medical provider if you see signs that an irritation rash may be turning into something more serious (i.e. the rash begins to appear raised off the skin or seem as though it has texture to it.)

If the rash has blisters or open sores, your child may need an antibiotic ointment. If the rash is very painful to the child and isn’t going away with normal measures — or if there’s a fever with the diaper rash — a call to your pediatrician might be a good idea. 

Not all diaper rashes are created equal. It’s important to remember that if a diaper rash is getting worse, you should speak to your child’s doctor to make sure prescription ointments are not needed. Diaper rashes can occur fast, sometimes in a matter of a few hours. You can change a diaper at 7 a.m., and three hours later may begin to notice redness. Depending on the severity, it can take two to 10 days to clear. Reach out to your medical provider if you have any concerns.

An old myth debunked

You may have heard the myth that cornstarch can help cure a diaper rash. While this old-school remedy isn’t harmful, it may not completely heal the condition. Though it’s thought that cornstarch can help wick away moisture, it doesn’t provide any type of protective barrier, like zinc oxide creams.

The same goes for products known as “dusting powders,” or baby powders. These may help wick away moisture, but they do not provide a barrier between the rash and moisture. But if you do decide to use baby powders, make sure to avoid using talc-based powders, as those can be harmful to a baby’s lungs if inhaled.

The bottom line 

Diaper rashes are common and can be uncomfortable. To help curb the problem, frequent diaper changes and using preventative barrier creams such as Aquaphor Baby Healing ointment can help. But please don’t feel guilty if you do all of this and rashes still come!

For those with repetitive diaper rashes, think about changing the brand of diapers you are using — and speaking to your child’s doctor about other tips to reduce recurrence. 

If you enjoyed this story, check out this baby’s hilarious reaction to trying solid food for the first time.

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