How to Treat and Prevent Chafing

Medically reviewed by Stacy Sampson, DO on September 27, 2017Written by Taylor Norris

What is chafing?

Chafing is a common skin problem caused by any combination of friction, moisture, and irritating fabric. Prolonged rubbing on the skin makes your skin sting or burn, and you develop a mild, red rash. In severe cases, chafing will include swelling, bleeding, or crusting.

You’re more likely to develop chafing on body parts that rub against each other or your clothing. Chafing commonly occurs on the thighs and buttocks. The nipples, groin, feet, and armpits can also chafe.

Common causes of chaffing

Your skin is your largest organ, and it has an important role in protecting and maintaining your overall health. Skin is strong and flexible enough to protect your internal body from outside elements such as germs, heat, and physical harm. Like anything else, skin cells can reach their limit and break down if they’re overworked. Skin needs to be clean and dry and have just the right amount of body oil or lotion to prevent friction and chafing.

Repeated rubbing, especially combined with moisture, makes skin more vulnerable to breaking down. Causes of chafing include:

  • Endurance sports. Biking and running are two causes of chafing, along with other activities that combine sweat and repeated motions of the body. Athletes can develop chafing anywhere that clothing or skin rubs on skin.
  • Being overweight.
  • Nursing. Breastfeeding mothers can develop chafed nipples.
  • Diapers. Prolonged exposure to urine or feces and not enough air flow can cause chafing on bottoms.
  • Walking around in a skirt, especially in hot or humid weather. Without pants to protect your legs from rubbing, many people develop inner-thigh chafing when wearing a skirt.
  • Ill-fitting clothes. You can chafe if your sleeves, bra strap, or waistband repeatedly rub on your skin in an irritating way.

Treatment

Immediately stop any activity that begins to rub and irritate your skin. If your clothes are rubbing your skin in an uncomfortable way, change into something that’s more comfortable.

If you notice chafing beginning, gently pat the skin dry, and apply petroleum jelly to the affected area.

Treatments for chafing include:

  • avoiding whatever caused the problem
  • applying a soothing lotion, balm, or oil; look for fragrance-free products that repel moisture
  • getting fresh air
  • using a topical steroid, which should only be done if prescribed by a doctor

Recovery

Chafing can heal within a couple of days if the problem is removed. If you can’t completely stop the activity that causes chafing, be sure to use protective measures while you’re doing that activity. You should also let the skin heal overnight by leaving the area exposed to air while you sleep. If there is abrasion or blistering on the skin surface, petroleum jelly and covering can be applied between cleanings until the skin heals over.

While your skin is recovering:

  • Do not try to clean chaffed skin with hydrogen peroxide or iodine, as these chemicals can actually hinder the healing process. Instead, clean with mild soap and water or just a saline solution.
  • Do not shower in extremely hot water or use harsh soaps, both of which make the skin overly dry and more susceptible to damage.
  • Always pat skin dry. Rubbing will make chafing worse.
  • Use ice or a cold pack for short amounts of time to relieve pain. Be sure to pat dry when you’re done.

Complications

Chafing breaks the skin’s protective barrier against germs and infection. If your chafing goes beyond mild redness and chapped skin, see a doctor. Signs that you need medical attention include:

  • bleeding
  • discoloration
  • swelling
  • crust

Your doctor may prescribe a steroid to soothe skin and help it heal faster.

Prevention

Preventing chafing is relatively simple, though it takes time and requires frequent attention.

It may be difficult to prevent completely if you regularly participate in activities that cause chafing. But there are still steps you can take to reduce its severity and keep it from getting worse. The following are some methods you can use to help prevent chafing.

Deodorant

Antiperspirant can prevent sweating before it causes a problem. And deodorant often contains moisturizers to protect your skin.

If you have an area prone to chafing or you’re worried that an activity may lead to it, apply a thin layer of deodorant to the area before beginning the activity. For example, if you often experience chafing along your inner thighs when wearing a skirt, apply a thin layer of deodorant to your thighs before leaving the house.

Lubricant

Creams, oils, and powders can provide a layer of protection and reduce friction. You’re less likely to chafe if the skin can glide smoothly. Powder may be less effective than lotion. That’s because it can clump and make chafing worse.

Moisture-wicking clothing

Materials like cotton retain sweat and moisture and keep your skin damp. This dampness increases your risk of friction and chafing.

Wear clothes that “breathe” and let the sweat evaporate off your skin, especially while exercising. Running tights and other sport-specific clothing can protect skin when you’re active. You can also wear bike shorts underneath a skirt to prevent thigh skin from rubbing together.

Properly fitting clothes

Clothes that are too big can move a lot and chafe skin by continually rubbing. Pay special attention to the fit of shoes, your shirt across your chest, and your pants at the waistline.

Soft bandages

For specific areas that flare up often, you can prevent chafing by adding a “second skin” of soft bandage. This is especially helpful on feet, inner-thighs, and nipples.

Air-drying and pads for nursing mothers

If you’re nursing, keep your nipples clean, dry, and away from any irritating fabric. Look for soft nursing bras. Some have built-in nursing pads. You can also purchase reusable or disposable pads that you can insert into your bra cups to help absorb extra moisture.

Remove wet clothes

Take your swimsuit off shortly after swimming so as not to keep the tight, wet fabric right on your skin. You should change out of other clothing that’s become saturated as soon as possible. That may include clothing that’s wet from sweat, getting stuck in a rainstorm, or wading through a river.

Plan for the weather

Consider working out when it’s cooler outside, such as morning or evening. That may help you sweat less and keep your skin and clothing drier.

Takeaway

The best treatment for chafing is prevention. Even with the best prevention methods in place, however, it’s still possible to experience chafing. In those cases, dry off the area, stop the activity that led to chafing as quickly as possible, and apply lotion or petroleum jelly to help soothe and protect the affected skin. Chafing should heal within a couple days. If the area seems overly irritated or is showing signs of infection, see your doctor.

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