Chronic eczema (atopic dermatitis) is one of the most common skin conditions young children experience. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), eczema affects approximately three percent of the youth population.
Eczema is a skin disorder where patients actually have a defective skin barrier, so their skin doesn't trap moisture in very well and it also doesn't protect the deeper layers of skin from things in the outside environment.
So eczema will typically occur in kids at least on the face and then in a lot of the creases of their arms, the creases behind their legs, but can really involve any area of the skin. In adults, it tends to involve those areas as well but many adults will have eczema all over their body.
What is Eczema?
Eczema is a condition that causes dry, extra-sensitive skin. The symptoms can be different for each person, but typically children and adults will develop a red, extremely itchy rash on flexor surfaces, such as the creases of the elbows, wrists and knees. Other trouble areas can include the neck, ankles and feet. Babies often show the same symptoms, but rashes are located on the outer arms and legs, face or trunk of the body (the chest and back).
Children as young as 2 months old can develop eczema. Some will outgrow the condition by the time they are 2 or 3 years old, however, many will suffer up to adolescence.
Eczema is a cyclical condition, meaning the reaction is also a cause of worsening symptoms. When something irritates the skin, such as harsh detergent, extreme heat, sweating or dry air, the child’s skin becomes red and inflamed. This prompts the child to scratch, which only causes the skin to become more inflamed and even more sensitive to irritants.
What Causes Eczema?
Though the exact cause of eczema is unknown, scientists believe that it is the result of a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Triggers are unique to each individual, but common causes are:
- Inherited tendencies – Typically, if a family member suffers from hay fever, asthma or eczema, your child has an increased risk of developing the condition.
- Irritants – Some people experience rashes after coming into contact with substances like soap, disinfectants or certain juices.
- Allergens – If your child suffers from respiratory allergies, these same triggers could cause an eczema flare-up as well.
- Environmental factors – Extreme heat or cold, as well as increased humidity, have been known to cause rashes.
- Certain bacteria, fungi and viruses
- Food allergies – When testing to determine if a certain food causes flare-ups for your child, avoid the food in-question for two weeks. Then reintroduce the food. If it does cause a flare-up, your child’s skin will become itchy or develop hives within two hours of eating.
- Hormone levels
Prevent Eczema from Flaring Up
Once you know what causes your child’s eczema flare-ups, you can take steps to eliminate the triggers of those uncomfortable rashes. There are also some changes you can make to decrease your child’s discomfort, no matter what his or her trigger is.
- Don’t dress your child in scratchy clothing, such as wool. Cottons are best.
- Avoid situations that cause your child to become overheated, such as piling blankets on at night or sleeping in heavy sleepers.
- Wash your child’s clothes in detergent made for sensitive skin, such as Dreft. Many other detergents currently on the market are allergen-free as well.
Generally, it’s okay to bathe your child every day; however, limiting the amount of time in the water will keep the skin healthier. Do not bathe your child for longer than 10 minutes daily. Children with eczema are very sensitive to harsh soap and bubble baths. For young children, bathing with water alone is sufficient, and teenagers should limit soap to areas that sweat, such as underarms, genitals and feet.
Tips for Avoiding the Discomfort of Eczema
- Use steroid cream - Topical ointments and creams are commonly prescribed to treat the symptoms of eczema. If the condition is more severe, a pediatric dermatologist may suggest phototherapy or oral medications.
- Lubricate the skin - After bathing, blot-dry the skin and apply a lubricating cream within three minutes to trap the moisture. Apply moisturizer to the skin at least twice a day. Effective products include Cetaphil Moisturizing Lotion, Eucerin and Lubriderm.
- Avoid itching - Apply the steroid cream prescribed by your child’s physician at the first sign of itching. To prevent severe scratching, keep fingernails short.
When to Contact Your Pediatrician
Boys Town Pediatrics advises contacting your child’s physician within 24 hours if the rash becomes raw and open in several places, looks infected or has not significantly improved within seven days of treatment. In the meantime, wash your child’s hands with water frequently to prevent infection.
If your child’s rash looks infected, your child has a fever or if the rash flares up after contact with fever blisters, call your child’s physician immediately.