Eczema, a skin condition characterized by rashes, itchiness and dryness, occurs all too often on infants’ faces and in the creases of kids’ elbows and knees. Known medically as atopic dermatitis, this chronic disease affects every child differently but often causes restlessness and irritation because of the itchiness. Over 30 million Americans have some form of eczema, according to the National Eczema Association. In most people, diagnosis occurs before the age of 5.
“As a parent, I felt helpless. I hated it,” says Amber Williams of Dover, DE, about the toll of the disease on her then 2-year-old son. “He was always digging his skin and itching. We went to doctor after doctor.”
“Eczema is a frustrating condition for both patients and parents,” says Eric Dorn, pediatrician at Virtua Hospitals and Advocare Marlton Pediatrics in Marlton, NJ. The good news is that it can be treated.
Practice good skin care
“The basics of good skin care need to be the foundation for managing eczema,” says Alana B. Jones, pediatric allergist at Nemours/A.I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, DE. She recommends parents use proper bathing techniques and moisturizers. “It’s really important to avoid drying and irritating the skin barrier,” agrees Stephen D. Hess, dermatologist at Center City Dermatology in Philadelphia.
To reduce eczema flare-ups, parents should:
- Use very gentle, fragrance-free or non-soap cleansers.
- Avoid frequent baths for infants and long, hot showers for older children.
- Use fragrance-free and dye-free detergent.
- Avoid fabric softener and dryer sheets.
- Use a humidifier in the bedroom during winter.
- Use a simple, bland moisturizer such as petroleum jelly.
“Apply moisturizer to infants after each diaper change, and for young children, use it before and after school and then at bedtime after bathing,” says Dr. Jones.
Natural moisturizers work well, too, says Melody Boudwin, physician assistant at Harkaway Center for Dermatology
and Aesthetics in Delran, NJ. “Coconut oil moisturizes and kills surface bacteria. Avocado oil, and shea and cocoa butters are also great natural moisturizers.”
Eczema can flare up for a variety of reasons. Dr. Jones recommends that parents get their child tested by an allergist to identify possible culprits.
“I’ve had many patients with severe eczema, and it was treated very quickly by avoiding the allergen,” says Dr. Dorn.
Eczema triggers include:
- Allergens like food, pollen, dust mites, pet dander, mold
- Dry skin
- Irritants such as shampoo, detergent and surface cleaners
- Mental and physical stress
- Extreme temperatures and sweating Infections
“Mild eczema can be treated with over-the-counter steroid creams or ointments,” says Dr. Hess. “If the disease is not controlled in that manner, parents will need to get a stronger prescription from their physician. The child’s age and the location of the eczema will dictate what medications are appropriate to use.”
"I’ve had many patients with severe eczema that was treated very quickly by avoiding an allergen.” — Dr. Eric Dorn.
Steroid creams decrease the inflammation, itchiness and redness of the disease, says Dr. Dorn. “If needed, topical or even oral antibiotics can be used.”
Many parents ask if a child can get rid of eczema. “Some people do outgrow the disease. But if that doesn’t happen, there are plenty of treatments available,” says Dr. Dorn.
With time Williams’ son’s eczema has improved. He’s now 10, and, she says, “He doesn’t complain of symptoms as much as he used to.”
Nicole D. Crawford is a freelance writer.