Tackling eczema in babies

Eczema is a common condition in babies. Although it is not harmful to your baby in the long run, it can cause significant discomfort and sometimes, even pain. For this reason, it is important to understand how to manage it.

Eczema a is condition that affects the skin and its ability to keep itself well hydrated. It happens when the skin has very few fatty molecules called ceramides. This molecular deficiency results in your skin becoming very dry. Most scientists believe that it may be in part due to an overactive immune system

Usually, eczema tends to run in families. Occasionally, children with eczema may also go on to develop hay fever and asthma. Some may also have associated food allergies.

What does baby eczema look like?

It shows up as rough, itchy patches of red or dry skin. In dark skinned babies, the affected patches of skin look darker than the rest of the body. Most babies develop it on their cheeks (although it can also appear on the neck and chin). As they grow older, it moves to the joints of their arms and legs.

The itchy rashes lead to breakages in skin due to excessive scratching. The broken skin allows harmful bacteria to invade the skin leading to infection.

Eczema is usually not a persistent condition, but rather one marked by symptom-free periods followed by flare-ups. A flare-up occurs when the baby is exposed to an irritant (trigger). When a baby with eczema is exposed to a trigger, it responds as though it has been exposed to a harmful substance. This results in inflammation and worsening of the eczema.

Although each baby is different, there are common triggers that worsen eczema. These include:

  • Poor moisturising: Dry skin makes eczema very itchy.
  • Perfumed skin and laundry products: Perfumed baby soaps, harsh detergents and perfumes may be triggers for skin irritation in babies with eczema.
  • Clothing material: Some outfits made of wool and synthetic material like polyester may trigger itching.
  • Overheating: When the baby has excess body heat, it can cause skin irritation.
  • Chemicals: These include those that are found in swimming pools.
  • Skin irritants: These might include sand, grass, pollen, mould, carpet (dust mites), pet dander, cigarette smoke, artificial colours and preservatives.
  • Excessive drool can also irritate the baby’s cheeks, chin and neck.

Tips for dealing with your baby’s eczema

Cut your baby’s nails and ensure that they are always short. This prevents them from damaging their skin when they scratch.

Get your baby some gloves/mittens to cover their hands. An effective substitute for gloves are long socks (you put them on the arms and tuck them into the shirt/blouse) – they are effective in keeping the scratching under control because they are harder for the child to remove.

Moisturise the baby’s skin thoroughly: use a good fragrance free cream or ointment on your baby’s skin. This should ideally be applied after bathing. If need be, apply it more than once a day.

Aqueous cream and various anti-eczema formulations are available in supermarkets (and over the counter in pharmacies).

Soap choices: Use unscented/non-perfumed mild baby and laundry soaps. Avoid antibacterial soaps, as these can be harsh on baby’s delicate skin.

Avoid perfumed fabric softeners where possible. Bathwater: Keep baths short (less than 10 minutes) and use lukewarm water (not hot). Using oatmeal bath products may be useful in reducing the itching.

When drying the baby’s skin, pat him/her down instead of rubbing the skin. Clothing: must be cotton, light material and loose fitting.

Do not overdress your baby or wrap him/her up with too many blankets (overheating may irritate the skin).

Swimming precautions: Your baby should avoid prolonged exposure to chlorinated water. If he/she must go on a swim, rinse the skin with clean water thoroughly afterwards. Remove irritants and known allergens from the household (where possible).

Although it does not happen to every child, some parents notice that their babies’ eczema flares up after ingesting certain foods. If that is the case for your baby, keep a food diary and take note of any foods that may be irritating your baby.

Treatment for baby eczema

There is no cure for baby eczema, but the condition usually becomes less severe over time. Treatment focuses on preventing flare-ups and keeping the skin well hydrated.

Medication: This is usually anti-inflammatory in nature and is designed to help reduce the irritation and itching. If your baby has steroid creams prescribed by her doctor, they should only be used for short periods at a time as they can lead to thinning of the skin.

Some babies need anti-histamine syrups in severe itching and irritation. If your baby’s skin is infected (as seen by pus filled blisters or crusts on the skin), he/she will need some antibiotic therapy.

Does eczema clear out on its own?

Most babies outgrow their eczema (it clears out by the time they are 5 years old). However, some people live with it for life.

No matter how severe eczema is, it is not contagious. Your baby cannot pass it on to his/her siblings or playmates.

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