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If you’ve ever experienced the painful skin condition that is chafing — irritation of the skin caused by repetitive friction — then you know that it usually heals within a matter of two to three days. Of course, provided that you take the necessary steps to care for it. This means cleansing the affected area with lukewarm water and then applying a barrier ointment or zinc oxide cream multiple times a day until your skin heals completely.
As long as you follow the steps mentioned above, your skin should feel good as new within a few days, depending on the severity of the chafing. That said, what happens if it’s been a solid week with little to no healing progress? Or worse: What if it eventually clears up, only to come back a mere couple of weeks later? Chances are, it’s either infected or it's not chafing at all.
“A good rule of thumb is to focus on the duration and recurrence of the rash,” says Washington, D.C.-based dermatologist, Adam Friedman, in regards to what to look out for when it comes to chafing. “If a problem persists or even worsens with taking simple measures to improve it, there could be something else going on,” he adds.
For starters, if the rash is taking ample time to mend or getting increasingly worse, then this could be a sign you have an infection. If that's the case, a doctor may need to prescribe antibiotics or antifungal medication to kick it.
“Chafing disrupts the skin barrier, also known as our armor, enabling organisms that live on our skin, as well as from the outside, access to the skin to which they shouldn’t,” explains Friedman. “In turn, this can lead to candida (yeast) and bacterial infections,” he adds. As far as symptoms are concerned, if you notice any blisters or boils, lumps or sores, or oozing of any kind at the site, it should be a signal to see a doctor.
What’s more, according to New York City-based dermatologist Melissa Levin, it’s not uncommon for people to confuse chafing with other skin ailments, such as sunburn, contact dermatitis, and intertrigo. Intertrigo is the inflammation of the skin in warm, moist areas, including the groin, under the arms and breasts, and between the thighs.
Additionally, Friedman says that many chronic inflammatory skin diseases, including psoriasis and lichen planus, can be mistaken for chafing as they also tend to appear in skin folds such as the armpits and groin area. For this reason, it’s important to pay close attention to your symptoms, because in some cases, chafing can look very similar to these conditions (i.e., red, swollen, and crusty).
To recap: In most cases, chafing should heal within just a few days if treated properly. If this doesn’t help clear it up, you may have an infection on your hands. That, or it could mean you have another situation entirely. If you’re unsure or find yourself self-diagnosing, the best thing you can do is see a dermatologist and determine what’s going on.