Your Baby and Eczema

By: Rachel Newcombe

It’s irritating and painful, sore and itchy - eczema is an unpleasant skin condition to have at any age. Babies and toddlers affected by it can become distressed and angsty, plus it’s difficult for parents to see infants suffering. But what causes this unpleasant condition, how can you recognise the symptoms and will it last into adulthood?

The skin condition eczema, or dermatitis, can affect both adults and children, but for children it can be particularly debilitating. There are various forms, with the most common being atopic eczema. It causes extreme itchiness, dry skin, redness and inflammation and scratching can cause the skin to split and increase the risk of infection. If it does get infected, the skin can crack and weep.

Babies under one year old also often suffer from infantile seborrhoeic eczema, otherwise known as cradle cap. It usually starts on the scalp or nappy area and can spread quickly. “Although this type of eczema looks unpleasant, it’s not sore or itchy and doesn’t cause the baby to feel uncomfortable or unwell,” explained a spokesperson for the National Eczema Society. “Normally, this type clears up in a few months and the use of moisturising creams and bath oils can help speed this up.”

In the 1970s, only one in 10 children had eczema, but recent research carried out by the University of Bristol shows that today one in three children have had eczema by the time they’re three and a half years old. The data, gathered from the ongoing ALSPAC or Children of the 90s study, involving over 14,000 children studied from birth, also found that 20 per cent of children developed eczema by the age of six months and 30 per cent developed it between birth and 42 months old.

Margaret Cox, chief executive of the National Eczema Society, says, “Eczema is a growing problem amongst children. There are a number of theories as to why it’s on the increase and the most commonly held view is that there is a combination of genetic and environmental factors.”

Recognising and managing eczema

Eczema can be recognised by the presence of dry, red or inflamed skin and babies may keep making a beeline to scratch their skin. If you’re concerned your baby may have the skin condition, experts recommend seeing your GP or practice nurse for a diagnosis.

Although there’s no definitive cure, eczema can be effectively managed. Keeping the skin moisturised is crucial and you’ll need to apply special emollient creams. Instead of soap, there are emollient bath oils and soap substitutes to use for washing. If emollients don’t control the symptoms, steroid creams may be needed. Babies inevitably want to scratch itchy skin, but you can minimise this by putting on cotton gloves or mittens.

“We advise parents to use common sense when managing the condition,” says Margaret. Sometimes you can find the triggers – such as pets in the house or washing powder – but in other cases it remains a mystery. Some people believe diet or food allergies may play a part, but Margaret urges caution with this. “If you can identify what triggers your child’s eczema, then avoidance can be an option, but it’s not always possible to identify any one factor,” she says. “Complete avoidance of all potential triggers can make life unbearable and modification to diet without the advice of your doctor is potentially dangerous and to be avoided.”

Living with eczema

Having a child with eczema can be hard work for parents, and affect the whole family, as Margaret explains. “When one person in a family has eczema, everyone can be affected. A child with eczema may wake several times a night because they’ve scratched so much they need bathing, or because they need more cream putting on. This can really take its toll on parents,” she says. Plus, “Siblings can feel left out because their parents’ time is spent caring for and distracting the child with eczema. It’s a very difficult balance to keep everybody happy.”

Although eczema can continue to affect some children for the rest of their lives, Dr. Tony Bewley, a dermatologist at Whipps Cross University Hospital, and someone who had bad eczema as a child, offers the hope that, “95% of children with eczema grow out of it by the time they’re 11.”

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