Eczema: what it is and how to treat it

Eczema is an inherited skin condition that is very common among babies and young children, affecting around 1 in 5 children under the age of two. Here are some tips to help manage it.

Recognising eczema

Eczema (also known as atopic dermatitis) is a form of dermatitis, or inflammation of the skin. It is characterised by an intense itch, which may be worse at night.
Other symptoms of eczema can include:
  • Dry, scaly skin
  • Red to brownish-grey patches
  • Thick, leathery skin
  • Small, raised bumps, due to blocked hair follicles
  • Crusted areas of skin       
  • Weeping or oozing patches           
  • Red, sensitive or swollen skin
In young children, eczema usually appears on the face, scalp, limbs or trunk. In older children and adolescents, it is often seen on the knees and elbows and may be accompanied by thicker, darker skin. Eczema can occur at any age, but it usually occurs in infants aged between one and six months.

What causes eczema?

It is believed eczema is caused by a complex interaction between genes and environmental triggers. Many people with eczema develop other allergies, suggesting a genetic tendency to develop eczema. It is also common for babies or children with eczema to develop asthma, hay fever (allergic rhinitis) and/or food allergies.

If you have eczema, it means that you have a skin barrier that doesn’t work as well as it should, meaning the skin has less water-retaining properties, leading it to dry out easily. Environmental triggers can also cause an eczema flare up.
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Common triggers

Eczema flare-ups are usually caused by more than one trigger, but the most common triggers are simply dryness, and heat. Others include:  
  • Allergens (e.g. pollens, moulds, dust mites, pets, grass)
  • Irritants (e.g. perfumes, soaps, shampoos, washing powders, cosmetic and toiletry products, sand and sand pits)
  • Chemicals (e.g. chlorine, solvents, tobacco smoke, pollution)
  • Fabrics (e.g. woollen or synthetic fabrics)
  • Weather and temperature fluctuations (e.g. hot and humid conditions, or cold and dry conditions; air conditioning and overheating)
  • Food intolerances (e.g. dairy and wheat, eggs, nuts, seafood, preservatives and colourings)
  • Viral or bacterial infections
  • Stress

How can you treat eczema?

Children often grow out of it by the time they reach five years old. In the meantime, treatment aims to reduce skin inflammation and itching, heal the skin, and prevent or minimise flare-ups.
Some good ways to treat eczema are to:
  • Avoid known irritants and allergens
  • Apply fragrance-free moisturisers every day to lock-in moisture
  • Avoid the use of soap
  • Apply aqueous cream to help keep dry skin moisturised
  • Keep the skin cool, particularly while sleeping
  • Use topical steroid creams and ointments as directed by your doctor or pharmacist

Seek medical advice

If you suspect your child has eczema, it’s important to see your doctor. They can draw up a treatment plan based on the type and severity of eczema, age, health and medical history.

It’s important to get eczema under control. Repeated scratching that breaks the skin can cause open sores and cracks, increasing the risk of infection from bacteria and viruses. 

If the initial treatment plan prescribed by your doctor is not effective, your doctor may prescribe further treatments, including oral steroids or immunosuppressive drugs.
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