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Up to 20% of children will have eczema, a common dry-skin rash, in their first few years. Find out what eczema looks like, possible triggers, and how to treat eczema at home.
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Eczema in babies
Eczema, which is also called atopic dermatitis, is a common dry-skin rash in babies. In fact, up to 20% of children will have eczema in their first few years of life, and for most of these children, the eczema shows up when they're babies.
In babies, the rash appears on the cheeks and scalp, but can spread to anywhere on the body. Older children tend to have eczema on their creases and around joints – so behind the knees and elbows, and on the wrists and ankles. Eczema looks like red, raised bumps or patches of red, scaly, dry skin. It's very itchy, which may make it hard for your child not to scratch. Sometimes the bumps or patches develop scabs, or become crusty and oozing. This can be a sign that the eczema has become infected, but often it's a result of overzealous scratching. It can also lead to thickened, darker skin and scarring.
Unlike other rashes, eczema comes and goes over time, and is not contagious. We don't know exactly what causes eczema, but there are some known triggers. It tends to run in families, so your child is more likely to have it if your family members have eczema, allergies or asthma. Environmental allergens or irritants can trigger eczema. For example, some children are triggered by pollen or secondhand smoke. Sometimes eczema is from a food in your child's diet or something in your diet if you're breastfeeding. Irritants like wool, perfume or fragrance soap as well as changes in temperature, heat, illness, and even stress can make eczema worse.
Luckily, there are some simple things you can do to help your child's eczema. First, generously apply an emollient, which is just an over-the-counter moisturizing cream or ointment, every day. Twice a day is even better. The emollient will help seal in the body's natural moisture and restore the outer protective layer of skin. The creams or ointments should be hypoallergenic and unscented. Try applying the emollient right after a bath when the skin is still damp to hold in as much moisture as possible. For bathing, it's best to use mild, fragrance-free soaps or non-soap cleansers, and to keep the water temperature lukewarm, as warmer water tends to dry out the skin more. Do your best to prevent your child from scratching with his hands or rubbing his face against the sheets. Scratching will worsen the skin inflammation and may lead to infection. Try applying cool compresses to the red areas. Also, keep his fingernails short or give him mittens for sleep. Your doctor may recommend an over-the-counter or prescription antihistamine medicine if the itching is severe. I recommend avoiding rough, scratchy fibers like wool. Try softer natural fabrics, and don't over-bundle your child as that may cause the eczema to flare. During flare-ups, your doctor may recommend an over-the-counter or prescription topical steroid cream or ointment to use for a short period of time. This will heal the red, inflamed areas and reduce the itchiness.
If your child is six months or older and has severe eczema, talk to your doctor about diluted bleach baths. Call your doctor if your child's eczema is crusting or oozing, as that can be a sign of an infection. I also recommend seeing your doctor if the remedies we've discussed aren't helping, or if your child's eczema is interfering with her sleep or activity. Your doctor may recommend that your child see a dermatologist. Unfortunately, eczema is a chronic rash that cannot be cured. But don't fret – your child's eczema usually lessens as she gets older, and many children will outgrow their eczema, often by their 5th birthday.
Video production by Paige Bierma.