10 things parents need to know about eczema
10 things parents need to know about eczema

Does your little one have red, dry, flaky and itchy skin that doesn’t appear to heal? It could be a case of eczema – a skin condition linked to allergies that can lead to grizzly babies and sleepless nights. Here are 10 facts to help parents understand more about the condition and it can be managed.

1. Eczema is a skin condition that makes skin dry and itchy

Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis or atopic eczema/dermatitis syndrome, is a papulovesicular dermatitis that occurs in 15–20 percent of infants and young children.

The most common type of eczema is atopic dermatitis, which typically follows a pattern of flaring up and then improving, though skin tends to remain dry and flaky between bouts. In severe cases, the skin can crack, weep, bleed, crust over or become infected.

Symptoms of eczema may include:

  • moderate to severe itching skin
  • a recurring rash (dry, red, patchy or cracked skin) which commonly it appears on the face, hands, neck, inner elbows, backs of the knees and ankles – though it can appear on any part of the body
  • skin that weeps a watery fluid
  • tough, leathery, thick skin.

2. Eczema is far from uncommon

In New Zealand eczema affects 15-20% of children and 1-2% of adults.

3. Eczema usually starts early

Up to one in three (30%) of infants have eczema by 12 months of age. This usually starts with patches on the cheek then moves to parts of the body such as the back, in elbows and behind the knees. The presence of eczema increases the risk of the infant developing allergies, and the risk increases with the severity of eczema.  Most infants will only have mild to moderate eczema and 10 to 20% of these may have a food allergy which makes their eczema worse. However up to a third of infants with severe (widespread) eczema are likely to have food allergies. For some people eczema may continue (or even begin) in adulthood, which is especially difficult to treat.

4. The causes of eczema are largely unknown

Researchers agree that the exact cause of eczema is unknown, however there are factors that are known to aggravate or precipitate the condition. Food and environmental allergens and irritants can be a factor. Foods such as dairy and wheat products, citrus fruits, eggs, nuts, seafood, chemical food additives, preservatives and colourings can trigger an episode, as can external factors including tobacco smoke, chemicals, weather (hot and humid or cold and dry conditions) and air conditioning or overheating. Wool, chlorinated water, soaps, shampoos or perfumed products, dust mites, grass and pollens are also common triggers.

Genetics also play a role – a family history of eczema, asthma or hay fever is a strong predictor – if both parents have eczema, there is an 80 percent chance that their children will also develop eczema.

5. Eczema can be a debilitating disorder for the whole family

A recent UK study – the largest of its kind – looked at the impact of child eczema and found:

  • 72 percent of respondents said their children with eczema had troubled sleep, and 35 per cent said this affected their behaviour at school.
  • 67 percent of parents suffered disturbed sleep as a result of their children’s eczema, and 32 percent have had to take time off work to deal with the condition.
  • Nearly half of the 800 respondents said the stress and trauma of eczema has caused friction and arguments with their partner.

6. Eczema can’t be cured, but it can be managed

There are a number of things you can do to reduce the risk of an outbreak. Keeping skin well moisturised with a fragrance free product is key, and the EAA also recommends:

  • keeping fingernails short to prevent scratching from breaking the skin, and putting on cotton mitts or gloves at night
  • avoiding rough, scratchy fibres and tight clothing – 100 percent cottons are a great choice for clothing and bedding
  • sticking to lukewarm baths and showers, and gently patting skin dry with a soft towel and applying a moisturiser within three minutes after bathing to ‘lock in’ the moisture
  • choosing hypoallergenic products and avoiding the use of perfumed products
  • learning what your child’s eczema triggers are and avoiding them.

7. An elimination diet may help identify triggers

Avoiding common perpetrators of food allergies may be sufficient. Common foods linked to allergies include dairy and wheat products, citrus fruits, eggs, nuts, seafood, chemical food additives, preservatives and colourings.

If the eczema is severe and you don’t seem to making headway, an elimination diet may help pinpoint any food allergies contributing to the problem. This should not be done without professional guidance, so see your GP for an appropriate referral.

8. Managing eczema early may help prevent asthma developing later

Eczema, hayfever and asthma are all inflammatory disorders of the tissues that separate the body from the outside world, and studies show 50-70 percent of children with severe eczema go on to develop childhood asthma. Research has shown that a substance secreted by damaged and broken skin (caused by eczema) moves through the body, often triggering asthmatic symptoms. This means early intervention, treatment and ongoing management of the skin rashes caused by eczema may stop asthma developing.

9. You can help relieve an eczema flare up to make it less uncomfortable

If a flare up occurs, as well as keeping up the preventative measures, there are a number of treatment options that may help relieve the severity:

  • Cold compresses applied to the skin relieves the itching for many sufferers, which will in turn reduce scratching and subsequent bleeding – basically you’ll help halt the cycle of the eczema outbreak.
  • Medicated creams may help - talk to your GP and always use exactly as directed.

10. Heat is the most common trigger for eczema

Keeping eczema sufferers cool is key to managing symptoms. The Royal Children’s Hospital of Melbourne recommends you do this by:

  • dressing your child in one or two thin layers of cotton clothing
  • bathing your child twice a day in a cool bath (<29°C)
  • removing duvets and woollen blankets from your child’s bed and using a cotton blanket or sheet instead
  • not having the house hotter than 20°C during the day and 15°C during the night
  • educating your child’s daycare, kinder and school teachers of the importance of not allowing them to overheat.

This article was written by Melanie Hearse for Kidspot.com.au and has been adapted for Kidspot.co.nz. Sources include Allergy New Zealand

Last revised: Thursday, 2 October 2014

This article contains general information only and is not intended to replace advice from a qualified health professional.