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Chafing: What is it? Causes, Symptoms & Treatments

Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger HendersonReviewed on 29.04.2024 | 6 minutes read
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Chafing is a skin condition that causes redness, inflammation and itching. It is usually caused by friction on the skin.

It’s a common condition that can occur in anybody – particularly if you are highly active and experience a lot of skin-on-skin, or clothing-on-skin friction. For example, athletes and hikers will be all too aware of chafing after a hard day of activity.

Chafing is not normally dangerous but can be seriously irritating. Don’t let it rub you up the wrong way, we answer all of your questions about chafing, as well as how to prevent and treat it in this article.

Doctor’s advice

What is chafing?

Chafing occurs when skin rubs on either clothing or directly on to other skin. The result is red inflamed skin with grazes, friction burns or cuts. It is common and can occur anywhere on the body, but the most likely areas are the armpits, thighs, groin and nipples. It's a condition that's generally quite painful but very mild and easily treated.

Those who are overweight are more likely to suffer from chafing due to skin being closer together. Additionally, those who are more active are likely to experience chafing, such as hikers and athletes due to the constant movement and rubbing of skin.

You are also most likely to experience chafing if you have dry skin.

Chafing appears as a red rash on skin. In more extreme cases, it can also include blisters and bleeding. However, it's normally always accompanied by a burning sensation.

What causes chafing?

Chafing is commonly caused by one of three factors: friction, moisture or irritating fabrics. It can also be a combination of the three, where friction creates heat which is trapped by thick fabrics, creating sweat which exacerbates the chafing.

Bodyweight is another factor that can lead to chafing. Those who are overweight may have more skin and folds. This increases the chances of skin rubbing on skin and by extension, chafing becomes more likely.

Particulates such as sand and dirt, when stuck in clothing or on skin can accelerate the chafing process. Imagine having sandpaper rubbing against your skin – it's the same effect.

Where can chafing occur?

Breast and nipple chafing

It is common to experience chafing around the breast and nipple area. This can occur for a number of reasons. Mainly, nipple chafing occurs due to fabric friction from clothing. Another common source for nipple chafing can include breastfeeding. As a sensitive area, the breasts and nipples are highly prone to chafing.

Armpit chafing

As a common place for sweat and moisture to pool and skin-on-skin friction, the armpit is one of the top areas where chafing occurs. Not only is it an area that's prone to more moisture, it is also highly prone to movement. Arm movement can worsen armpit chafing, so it is important to treat armpit chafe symptoms early as soon as they occur – this will help you go about your everyday life without as much discomfort.

Lastly, the armpits are also prone to chafing from clothing and antiperspirant chemicals. If you notice that your antiperspirant or deodorant worsens armpit chafing, explore a more sensitive alternative.

Thigh chafing

Thigh chafing occurs when thighs rub together, creating friction with skin or clothes. This can be particularly common in the summer months when it is warmer. Not only can the heat make thigh chafing worse, but shorter clothes can also result in more fricative skin-on-skin chafing. Chafing Thighs can be experienced by people of all shapes and sizes. It's very common in hikers who often go on long walks.

Groin chafing

Skin around the groin can naturally be more sensitive, so it takes a lot less for it to become irritated. There's a lot going on in this area, so chafing can stem from moisture and friction in this case. This is common in cyclists and in hot weather.

Butt chafing

Similar to nappy rash, chafing can stem from the bottom of the butt, right to in between the cheeks. This can be caused by nearly all chafing causes, including moisture, friction and clothing. This can be particularly uncomfortable as it affects walking and sitting.

Feet chafing

Blisters are a more common cause of feet rubbing together or on clothing for prolonged periods. These are raised bubbles of fluid in areas affected by repeated rubbing, and more so when the foot is wet or sweaty. They can occur when exercising or in hot weather. When popped, they can be quite painful, so it's always important to use appropriate footwear.

Steps to avoid chafing

To avoid chafing it is best to keep the vulnerable areas dry by changing out of wet clothing items, using talcum powder and wearing correctly fitted sweat-wicking fabrics to exercise.

If you are prone to thigh chafing, then wearing cycling shorts when wearing skirts or dresses can help prevent it from occurring. You can also purchase petroleum jelly (commonly known as Vaseline) or a specific chafing cream from the pharmacy to use on areas prone to chafing.

Here is a summary of ways to avoid chafing:

  • Wear softer fabrics
  • Use talcum powder on susceptible areas
  • Wear correctly-fitting clothing
  • Use petroleum jelly (Vaseline) on sensitive skin areas
  • Change out of wet clothing

Symptoms of chafing

Symptoms of chafing can be mild or severe. It may not be something noticed initially but can be uncomfortable some time after when something comes into contact with the affected area.

What are the mild symptoms of chafing?

  • Red rash
  • Raised bumps
  • Hot feeling in and around the affected area
  • Stinging or burning sensation
  • Itching
  • Excessive irritation
  • Tender skin
  • Flaky, dry skin

More severe chafing symptoms include:

  • Welts on skin
  • Muscle pain
  • Swelling on and around the affected area
  • Cracked and broken skin
  • Bleeding
  • Blisters or sores
  • Secondary skin infections

How to Treat chafing

To treat chafing, speak to your pharmacist regarding purchasing petroleum jelly or specific cream or lubricant to help. Clean the area using water and, once dry, apply the product. Avoid causing further chafing to the area to allow healing.

How long does chafing take to heal?

One of the first questions someone will ask when experiencing chafing is “what is the chafing recovery process”. Normally, chafing should heal within a week. This is dependent on the severity of the chafing and if you are able to allow that area to heal by avoiding direct contact with it. Keeping it clean and cool can aid this process.

There are several ointments and lubricants that can also help the healing process along. If mild, the affected area can be left to heal naturally and shouldn’t take more than one week.

If healing is taking longer than one week or looking worse, seek medical advice from a local pharmacy or doctor.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips for chafing

The key aims for chafing treatment are to reduce friction and protect skin from wearing down by a combination of sweat and rubbing. It's then to help the skin repair and improve the skin barrier to relieve symptoms and avoid infection.

A petroleum jelly-based product, such as Vaseline or similar, may help provide a protective barrier on the skin to reduce irritation by providing some lubrication, and thus reduce friction from rubbing. A product such as Sudocrem may also help with this, and additionally has some antiseptic properties.

Lanacane anti-chafing gel is a non-greasy alternative that can help protect skin from chafing and provide a smooth, dry barrier over the skin to reduce friction. Being non-greasy it has less undesirable effects like being transferred to clothing and underwear.

When should I see my doctor?

You should be able to treat chafing at home with advice from your pharmacist. If the area has not improved after treatment for one to two weeks or looks infected (yellow residue, red around the area, or swollen) then seek medical advice from your local doctor.

The doctor will take your medical history, ask about your current symptoms and examine the area. If it is infected, they may prescribe an antibiotic cream to apply to the area.

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Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger Henderson
Reviewed on 29.04.2024
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