Eczema in kids: What parents can do to calm the itch

About 1 in 10 kids have eczema, which is characterized by dry, red, itchy patches of skin. A child’s genes, the mix of microorganisms that live on the skin and changes in the skin’s ability to fend off threats like disease, can make a child more susceptible to this common condition. That’s because all those factors can contribute to one problem: The skin loses water easily.

Eczema is most often seen in kids with atopy — a genetic tendency to develop issues like seasonal allergies, asthma and eczema. It’s important to understand that eczema is not caused by foods that a child eats (or food that mom eats, if breastfeeding) or the result of using “cheap” skin care products. The biggest predictor of eczema in a child is having parents with dry skin. If you have eczema, your child will be twice as likely to have it, too. If both parents have eczema, a child’s risk of having the skin condition increases five-fold.

Dry skin can affect a child in more ways than one — and so can addressing it. The uncontrollable itch can lead to sleep disruption. Eczema can affect self-esteem, forcing kids to wear limited types of clothing in order to keep the red patches hidden. Kids can scratch affected areas until they bleed, leaving that skin vulnerable to infections from bacteria and viruses. All these problems can be minimized or avoided by properly identifying and treating eczema.

[See: 8 Surprising Facts About Asthma and Seasonal Allergies.]

Since the primary problem with eczema skin is water loss, successful treatment is focused on replacing lost moisture. If the skin can maintain hydration, the chemical reactions that lead to inflammation and irritation will be eliminated.

There are a number of ways to keep kids’ skin hydrated. For example, after a child has a bath, you can seal in the absorbed water with an ointment. Petroleum jelly is a cheap and effective ointment that’s commonly recommended for this purpose. Apply it liberally to your child’s skin whenever you can — preferably several times daily.

Avoid using food oils on your child’s skin. Allergists are beginning to report higher levels of previously rare food allergies, including coconut and sesame allergies.

One hypothesis is that this is due to parents using food oils in hopes of protecting their children’s broken skin barriers. The skin has its own immune cells — or what are referred to as skin-resident immune cells. And it’s thought that being exposed to food oils that are applied to the skin may be causing sensitivity to these foods. This theory has been tested in mice and is currently being studied in humans. Until we know more, it’s best to keep the food oils in the pantry and off your child’s skin.

If your child is still experiencing itchy breakouts even though you’re keeping the skin hydrated, topical steroid treatments are a practical next step. These prescription ointments soften the outermost skin layers, allowing moisture to penetrate and repair the skin deeply. Topical steroids are safe and effective. Still, some preparations can sting or burn when applied. Also, if you are not seeing improvement with consistent use over seven days, check with your child’s pediatrician about other options to comfortably manage your child’s eczema.

[See: Starting Solids With Your Baby? Avoid These 8 Mistakes.]

Once the itchy breakouts have been quelled, you can stop the steroid, and return to just using a hydration therapy to manage eczema.

Don’t forget that stress can also be a trigger for an eczema flare. The hormones and chemicals released in our bodies during times of stress can cause inflammation in the skin. So if anxiety or stress are worsening your child’s symptoms, it’s important to manage those issues.

In addition, foods ranging from citrus fruits, eggs and dairy to wheat can also trigger eczema. Keeping a food diary can sometimes aid in determining which foods may be causing a flare. However, food triggers change so quickly in a growing child that journals are typically not very helpful.

Although we can’t change our genetics, there are some things parents with eczema can do to decrease the likelihood their kids will develop the skin condition. Studies suggest that infants bathed in hard water (which has a high level of calcium) are at increased risk of developing eczema. So installing a water softener may help. Also, early exposure to pet dander or farm animals and early day care all seem to lower kids’ risk of developing eczema.

In most instances, when a baby or older child has eczema, following simple guidance from a primary care doctor is sufficient to get skin symptoms under control; and a referral to a dermatologist can be provided if needed.

[See: 10 Things Pediatricians Advise That Parents Ignore — and Really Shouldn’t.]

Talk with your child’s doctor if dry skin runs in your family. The more quickly you can incorporate a quality skin care plan into your child’s daily routine, the healthier your child’s skin will be.

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Eczema in Kids: What Parents Can Do to Calm the Itch originally appeared on

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