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Scabbing over is part of the skin’s healing process, but it’s easy to forget how fascinating this process is for kids. We all know that the healing process can be really itchy, which is enough to tempt the average adult into rubbing or picking a scab but for an inquisitive toddler or child a scab, stitches or dressing just has to be investigated further. What young children don’t understand is that scabs and stitches play an important role in the healing of their skin, and that picking them while the wound is healing could restart the bleeding. While scabs are still something of a novelty, kids are absorbed with them largely because they’re unknown. Explaining what a scab is, what it does and why it should be left alone may help to discourage scratching and picking to some degree.
While irritating, experiencing itchy skin around a wound is usually said to be a perfectly normal symptom of the healing process.
There are several different theories as to why we experience itchiness while a wound heals. These include:
Histamines – When injured, the body produces histamines to assist the healing process. These are the same chemicals responsible for the itching and inflammation associated with allergic reactions. A 2018 study suggested that these histamines could be responsible for some of the itchiness that may be experienced when a wound is healing.
Immune system – A 2016 study found that healing wounds and eczema both trigger the same response of the innate immune system, which can lead to some itchiness.
Damage to nerves – If an injury has caused damage to nerve cells, you may experience a neuropathic itch. The healing nerves in the upper layer of the damaged skin send confusing messages to the brain, resulting in more itching in the skin around the injury.
Pulling of new skin – Some experts say that itchiness may be caused by scabs or stitches pulling on the new skin as it forms.
Dry skin – Dryness is also believed to be a possible culprit behind the itchiness of a healing wound, as the oil glands that normally keep skin lubricated and prevent dryness are affected by the damage done during the infliction of the wound.
Scabs will fall off of their own accord when the skin underneath is ready for the outside world. Pick them off any sooner, and your child risk damaging the delicate new skin that is forming underneath. At best, this will mean another scab, so the wound takes longer to heal. But the second scab maybe even bigger than the first. The delayed healing is more likely to leave a larger, permanent scar when it finally comes off.
Scabs also play an important role in keeping infections at bay. Picking at a scab, especially with grubby fingers, can introduce fresh bacteria into a healing wound and cause an infection which will further delay healing and may need a course of antibiotics as well. Infections can also make scabs even more itchy, prone to picking and may result in a larger scar.
Also, picking at an itchy scab while daydreaming can quickly turn into a difficult-to-break habit, so it’s a good idea to stop your child from picking their scabs early to prevent a larger problem from developing.
Most childhood scabs will heal of their own accord as soon at they are left alone, but occasionally a trip to the doctor is necessary when a wound becomes infected. Signs that a wound has become infected include:
There are lots of reasons why kids like to pick at and play with a scab that’s formed on their skin, but there can be more serious motivations behind some skin-picking behaviour, especially in older children.
Persistent picking at pimples and scabs can indicate anxiety or an obsessive-compulsive disorder that you should discuss with your doctor, especially if your child appears to be creating new scabs rather than just picking at those resulting from the expected scraps and scuffs of childhood.
According to Child Mind Institute, ‘excoriation disorder is characterized by recurrent picking at one’s skin to the point that damage or discomfort is caused.’ If this sounds like your child, then you should discuss your child’s symptoms with your doctor, especially if they appear to be creating new scabs rather than just picking at those resulting from the expected scrapes and scuffs of childhood
However, the vast majority of scab-picking is down to childish curiosity.
Here’s a good place to start: https://kidshealth.org/en/kids/scab.html