How to Handle Eczema in Children

Updated on October 31, 2018
VVanNess profile image

Victoria is a stay-at-home mom, author, blogger at Healthy at Home, and educator. She currently lives in Colorado with her family.

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Being that time of the year when the weather is getting colder and the air is getting drier. We are also neck deep in holiday season, and what that means is visiting family, different schedules, eating foods that are not a normal part of the diet, and additional stress. What with the weather and all of the stress from the impending holidays, it’s no wonder our little ones are coming down with illnesses and rashes.

When my oldest was in his first year of life (and he was born in October), we used to struggle with eczema constantly. He would get red itchy rashes all over his body. It was awful. He was uncomfortable, we couldn’t figure out how to help, and I’m sure all of the stress wasn’t helping anything. Like all brand-new parents, we fumbled through a variety of treatments until we finally figured out the cause and felt really stupid at the obvious cause in our particular case.

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When we finally handled the cause of his discomfort, it went away and has only peeked its itchy head out a couple more times, but we immediately knew how to handle it when it did. Four years later, he is now eczema free and we are all happy. There are bigger things to worry about now, like potty training. However, I’m hearing from moms in all of my mom groups that their children are suffering and they don’t know what to do or how to handle it. All of the treatments they are trying aren’t working.

It’s widely known that stress can cause your immune system to become vulnerable, but what you don’t realize is all of the other factors that can possibly cause illness, and for the purpose of this article, eczema, in your children as well.

I thought that it was time for another informative article on the topic to help answer some of these questions, and get these kids feeling better again. No one should have to handle this kind of discomfort, and handling it wrong could lead to much bigger and even dangerous problems. By following the tips in this article, not only will you learn a great deal about eczema, but you can quickly and efficiently deal with it in your household and get your kids back to their vibrant states.

First let’s address the most important question. What is eczema exactly?

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What is Eczema?

Eczema is a word used to cover various conditions that cause your skin to become dry, itchy and inflamed. It is traditionally a red rash that can appear on just about any part of your body, but typically sticks to areas like your face, your joints, and exposed areas, like your arms and legs. It’s extremely itchy and can burn. Mostly it’s just really annoying, especially when it rubs on your clothes, but if it isn’t treated right away with the right skin healing methods, it can lead to infection and even possibly the dangerous and possibly fatal staph infection.

Most doctors and symptom searches online will give you the word dermatitis for what your child is experiencing. Dermatitis simply means skin inflammation, which is just another word for eczema.

Let’s look at the several types of eczema you might see on your child.

  • Atopic dermatitis -most common type, most typical eczema diagnosis for all ages
  • Contact dermatitis –when something you touch causes a reaction like poison ivy, some jewelry, latex, some makeup brands, something you’re allergic to, etc.
  • Dyshidrotic eczema –lifelong problem, skin sensitivity in older people
  • Seborrheic dermatitis -also known as cradle cap for ages 0-5 years of age

About 1 out of every 10 kids will develop eczema during childhood, most of those will happen before the age of 1. Typically, symptoms appear within the first few months of life, and almost always before a child turns 5. But the good news is that more than half of the kids who have eczema today will be over it by the time they're teenagers.

What Does Eczema Look Like?

Eczema can be dry patches, red spots, flaking skin, blisters, sores, and even oozing sores. It’s most simple form is just the dry, red spots that itch. Check out some of the pictures below for examples of common eczema.

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What Causes Eczema in Children?

Eczema is call “the itch that rashes,” because it starts very simple, as maybe a tiny spot or two, but then when scratched, it flames up and spreads on your skin. If left to its own devises it can become a severe skin condition or staph infection that needs hospitalization. Eczema is not an allergy itself, but allergies can trigger it. Some environmental factors, such as excessive heat, dry air, or emotional stress, are the most common triggers of the condition. There are so many possible eczema triggers, but you have to look at the causes behind the problem and not just at the problem you see to get to the root of it.

  • Dry winter air –the colder weather and dry air tend to dry out your skin faster, lending to skin issues if your skin is not properly cared for
  • Dry skin –skin left to flake, split, and crack is obviously more vulnerable to illness
  • Commercial soaps and detergents –all of the harsh chemicals, and synthetic fragrances, in products nowadays are very hard on your skin, especially as a child, and can cause many issues in your body, including skin issues
  • Certain fabrics -wool or coarsely woven materials can contribute to skin problems as it rubs areas of the skin raw
  • Commercial skin care products, perfumes, and colognes –these contain alcohol many times, harsh chemicals, and synthetic fragrances that are harmful to your skin. The chemicals and alcohol can even leach into your skin and get into your bloodstream, causing many more problems than simple dermatitis.
  • Saliva -drooling, or licking, can cause irritation on your infant or child’s cheeks, chin and neck
  • Tobacco smoke –as with other chemicals, cigarette smoke contains toxic chemicals known to do major harm to our bodies, most especially in children. One reaction to the toxins in the cigarettes may be a skin rash.
  • Processed foods –even prepackaged foods (chips, cereal, granola bars, fruit snacks) and refined ingredients (white sugar and flour) have toxic chemicals and preservatives in them used to make the food last longer. However these chemicals and preservatives have long been proven to cause untold numbers of autoimmune problems, such as eczema, and even cancer.
  • Emotional stress –large amounts of stress weakens the immune system, making you vulnerable to a number of issues and illnesses
  • Excessive heat - When the temperature is hot and the body is trying to cool off, you have dilation of blood vessels that triggers the movement of inflammatory cells. Inflammation like a flaring of your eczema. Not drinking enough water when it’s hot outside can make the heat much more dangerous as you can get dehydrated, thus drying out your skin.
  • Sweating - because human sweat contains trace elements of zinc, copper, iron, nickel, cadmium, lead, manganese, sodium and chloride, the build-up of these chemicals could irritate a person’s eczema
  • Immunizations –some children have been known to develop skin issues after their immunizations

But how do you know if what your child is experiencing is actually eczema?

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What are the Signs and Symptoms of Eczema in Children?

Even with the same condition, like cradle cap for instance, eczema can look different for every person. Cradle cap usually appears like yellow, greasy patches on the scalp, but in some cases it can turn red, it can be flaky, and it can even spread behind the baby’s ears. Unfortunately, it may also appear in patches on the nose, eyelids, groin, armpits, and backs of the knees. But when it spreads onto the rest of the body like this, it is no longer known as “cradle cap.” That is when it is more commonly known by the name “eczema.”

Younger Kids

From 2 months old, all the way up through 5 years old, kids with eczema usually develop itchy, dry, red skin and small bumps on their cheeks, forehead, or scalp. The rash may spread to the arms, legs and chest, and red, crusted, or open sores may appear in any of those areas. They also may have circular, slightly raised, itchy, and scaly rashes in the bends of their elbows, behind their knees, or on the backs of their wrists and ankles. Joints are particularly susceptible because the skin is stretched thin on the front and it usually sweats on the back.

Older Kids

As kids get older, between 6 and 12 years old, the rash is usually scalier than it was when the eczema first began, and their skin is extremely itchy and dry. While eczema in younger children is more common and the cause is more obvious, that is not the case with older kids. Their eczema may come and go, getting better or worse for no apparent reason, and they may have random flare ups from time to time. Their bodies have been exposed to the trigger for longer, and so it’s in their system and may not be so predictable.

In many cases, the eczema will disappear altogether for months or even years. However, after one case of eczema, if treated correctly and the trigger removed, you may never see it again.

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What is the Best Treatment for Eczema?

Now that you know what eczema is and how to identify it, I’m sure you’re asking yourself how to treat it, and get rid of it altogether. Just like the symptoms of eczema can be different for each child, so might the needed treatment be different. You may need to try a variety of treatments before you see some results. Let’s look at some of the most important.

  • Avoid using scented soaps or lotions. The chemicals in those products alone are enough to trigger a flare up.
  • Avoid excessive scrubbing and toweling after bathing your child. Instead, gently pat your child's skin dry. Air drying is actually the best method if possible.
  • Avoid dressing your child in harsh or irritating clothing, such as wool or coarsely woven materials. Dress your child in soft clothes that "breathe," such as those made from cotton.
  • Avoid any ointments (such as petroleum jelly), and alcohol-containing lotions and moisturizers, which can make skin drier. Some baby products also can contribute to dry skin.
  • Avoid processed foods and cleaning or bathing products with chemicals and fragrances.
  • Avoid sugary beverages or foods, as these may cause even more problems.
  • Apply an unscented moisturizer to your child's skin regularly and always after bathing, after a very light towel dry. Apply moisturizers or lotions frequently (ideally, two to three times a day).
  • Apply cool compresses (such as a wet, cool washcloth) on the irritated areas of skin to ease itching.
  • Keep your child's fingernails short to minimize any skin damage caused by scratching.
  • Help your child avoid becoming overheated, which can lead to flare-ups.
  • Have your child drink plenty of water, which adds moisture to the skin.

Many parents simply like to take their children to the doctor for their own peace of mind when they see the signs of eczema on their children. Just be aware that your doctor will likely recommend antihistamines, antibiotics and a topical corticosteroid cream. He or she may also recommend a change in diet for your child, such as eliminating dairy or meat products. For many reasons, I would hesitate to follow any of these recommendations. See Cautions for Treating Eczema below to find out why.

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Is Eczema Dangerous?

Eczema in and of itself is not dangerous. It’s simply dry, itchy skin. What’s dangerous is when it is scratched and open sores are created. Open sores on your skin, for any reason, make you more vulnerable to infection and further complication. Scratching can also spread the rash to other parts of your body, or spread the rash further in the same area. Consider having a rash on your cheeks that is scratched and then moves an infection into your eyes. Infections of the eyes can cause permanent eye damage.

Eczema, especially once it becomes infected from scratching, that is left untreated can also cause further problems. The very worst case scenario is a staph infection, which is a serious infection of the skin. Staph infections can get pretty dangerous. However you’re not going to let it get that far, especially when the treatments are so easy.

For some additional peace of mind, eczema is not contagious, so there's no need to keep a baby or child who has it away from siblings, other kids, or anyone else.

“First, we simply don’t yet have a cure for this disease. Second, we can’t yet clearly explain why this disease occurs. While doctors try hard to describe factors that play a role in atopic dermatitis, such as cytokines and inflammatory cells, we still can’t pinpoint the root of the disease. Third, the outcomes of conventional atopic dermatitis treatments are not always consistent, and sometimes they are perceived as being unsafe.”

— By Peter Lio, M.D.

Are There Natural Treatments for Eczema?

The risks of using physician recommended treatments can be real, due in part to black box warnings on those medications containing scary words like cancer as a side effect. Every day more and more people are learning about the dangers of preservatives and other chemicals found in our food, medications, and household products, like detergent, soap, shampoo and window cleaner—and we wonder whether we should be putting these ingredients on our skin, or in our bodies.

The presence of these toxic chemicals has been admittedly reported by the companies using them, and the negative side effects have long been proven. People are getting sick like never before in history with crazy autoimmune diseases that are killing them, but are completely preventable. Problems like asthma, allergies, Celiac’s disease, arthritis, diabetes, psoriasis, MS, irritable bowel syndrome, lupus, thyroid issues, fibromyalgia, eczema, and cancer, alongside over 80 autoimmune diseases discovered to date, can all be linked back to your gut and the damage being done to your body by what you eat and put on your skin.

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But, never fear, there are plenty of natural treatments that you can use at home to tackle the cause of the eczema rather than just reducing the symptoms, like the treatments above. And many of these will improve your overall health along with riding you of the eczema problem. Check out some of these natural solutions for eczema:

  • Sunflower seed oil -The natural oil serves as an anti-inflammatory, which can be beneficial for patients suffering from the inflammation of eczema.
  • Coconut oil -One study with atopic dermatitis patients showed staph bacteria on the skin decreased by 95 percent after coconut oil was applied to the skin.
  • Massage –We know stress plays a huge role in atopic dermatitis. When eczema sufferers of all ages are stressed out, they get itchy and experience flare-ups. So it makes sense that a stress reliever like massage could help. For parents of younger children with eczema, the massage becomes a great time to apply moisturizer to the skin; this is not only a gentle and safe way to help treat your children, but a great time to bond as well.
  • Vitamin D -In the Western world, many people are slightly vitamin D deficient due to the amount of time spent indoors and because of the sun protection we use to help prevent skin cancer.
  • Bathing -Taking a bath at least once a day (rather than less frequently), then moisturizing immediately after, is helpful for most of my patients; it washes allergens, pollutants, and other irritants from the skin and keeps it hydrated.
  • Probiotic -Some studies show that newborn babies who have a limited number of bacteria in their guts also have an association with eczema at one year of age. Babies with a more diverse flora of healthy bacteria in their guts have a decreased risk of eczema at one year of age.
  • Apple cider vinegar -Apple cider vinegar may provide a more natural way to address the yeast, as it has some anti-yeast properties and could help restore the skin’s natural healthy state in that it is slightly acidic. When our skin is a little more acidic (pH around 5), it stays strong and bacteria can’t grow well.
  • Breastfeeding –when breastfeeding, mom is transferring her strong adult antibodies in the little body of her child well before he or she is able to produce them for himself/herself. Not only do these antibodies strengthen the child’s immune system by leaps and bounds, for as long as mom is willing to breastfeed, but those antibodies are dispatched to fight exactly the issue the child is currently dealing with just when he or she needs them the most.

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Cautions for Treating Eczema in Children

Parents can get advice for how to treat their child’s eczema from a dozen different places, but this doesn’t mean that they are all safe. The very worst advice seems to come from the doctor’s office, as they prescribe solutions based on caution and not need.

Antibiotics

Megha Tollefson, M.D., an assistant professor of dermatology and pediatrics at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and co-author on a 2014 clinical review on treating childhood eczema for the American Academy of Pediatrics states, “Research shows that antibiotics won’t cure mild-to-moderate eczema in kids any faster than standard treatment." In fact, a recent study involving 113 children with eczema (most under the age of 3) without symptoms of a serious infection, such as fever or pus-filled sores, showed that antibiotics don't help with eczema flare-ups, but actually cause much more harm.

As eczema is a problem with a compromised immune system, and antibiotics literally kill your immune system to fight the infection, they simply make you that much more vulnerable to further infection and illness. “Antibiotics shouldn’t be used when they aren’t absolutely needed because the drugs can cause awful side effects. For example, antibiotic creams can cause skin irritation and rashes. Oral antibiotics (pills or liquid by mouth) commonly cause diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting,” Tollefson says. “Babies and toddlers with eczema are more prone to diaper rash, and diarrhea can make it much worse.”

In rare instances, oral antibiotics can cause serious harm. A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that side effects from antibiotics, most commonly severe allergic reactions, are responsible for more than 65,000 children being rushed to the emergency room each year. For children younger than 5, side effects from antibiotics such as amoxicillin (Amoxil, Moxatag, and generic) and azithromycin (Zithromax, Z-Pak, and generic) are the leading cause of ER visits due to adverse drug effects.

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Corticosteroids

There has been a dramatic increase in the prescribing of corticosteroids to children over the last two decades for treatment of immune issues like asthma, allergies and eczema. However, corticosteroids are associated with a number of significant adverse effects, including osteoporosis, skin weakness, thinning and loss of muscle, metabolic complications, hypertension and mental psychosis, many of which are seen primarily after long term therapy.

Two of the most feared complications of corticosteroid therapy are loss of natural steroid production, loss of aldosterone production, which regulates sodium conservation, potassium secretion, and water retention, and immune suppression.

Children and adolescents treated with oral, inhaled, or even intravenous corticosteroids may experience adverse psychological side effects, including psychotic symptoms. These can occur at any point during treatment, including withdrawal, along with all of the well-known physical side effects they come with.

As corticosteroids are hormones, they can have a wide range of side effects. This is because hormones are powerful chemicals that influence many different processes, from the strength of your bones to your body weight. With oral corticosteroids, or corticosteroids that are injected into the blood, the effects are spread throughout the body immediately.

Bleach Baths

Many doctors, and moms, are also recommending bleach baths as a treatment for childhood eczema, by putting a cup or more bleach into your child’s bath to “kill” any infection. The danger of this method should have hit you immediately when you saw the words bleach baths.

Just as using alcohol baths for reducing fevers can poison your child and require an emergency hospital visit, bleach is extremely dangerous as well. Anything you put on your child’s skin is capable of being absorbed into their bodies straight into their blood veins, and can poison them quickly and efficiently by spreading everywhere in their bodies fast, even their hearts and brains.

Please do some research and be extra careful when treating your child’s eczema.

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One of the most important tips for keeping your kids healthy from the beginning is by providing them with a diet free from processed foods (avoiding food groups altogether is dangerous at any age) and refined ingredients, and avoiding chemicals in your home in any form, but especially in your cleaning and bathing products. The problem we discovered with my son, of course I wasn’t going to leave you hanging, was the body wash I was using to clean his delicate little body. We were using a lavender scented Aveeno soap. As soon as we switched to a natural soap, it went away.

Eczema is a very common, non-threatening issue that 1 out of every 10 children will deal with before their first birthday. In the absence of clear signs of infection, the best approach is to do a good job taking care of their skin from the very beginning and allow their bodies to heal themselves. Your skin is meant to protect you, as well as your immune system.

By helping to feed and strengthen both of these areas in your children, you will not only get them safely and comfortably through their eczema quickly, but you will be helping their bodies to become stronger and better at healing in the process. Eczema doesn’t have to be scary, uncomfortable, or confusing. By following the healthy tips above, and being careful to pay attention to the cautions, your child will be even healthier in the long run thanks to your efforts.

Disclosure

I am not a doctor, nor do I have a medical degree. The information in this article comes from a great deal of research, some great resources, and a lot of personal experience. Please research more on your own for more information or to verify my facts for yourself. Parents who are unsure if their child's eczema needs treatment should contact the child's health care provider. And if you ever feel like you need to go to the hospital, by all means go.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Victoria Van Ness

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      • VVanNess profile imageAUTHOR

        Victoria Van Ness 

        31 hours ago from Fountain, CO

        Thank you! I wholeheartedly agree.

      • profile image

        Lorna Lamon 

        2 days ago

        Excellent article - I was particularly interested in the natural remedies which I feel cause the least harm. Diet also plays an important part - good eating habits start young. Very informative article.

      • VVanNess profile imageAUTHOR

        Victoria Van Ness 

        12 days ago from Fountain, CO

        Oh, I'm so glad you enjoyed it. I really wish doctors would simply say "I don't know," or tell the truth, rather than spreading craziness to the masses.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        12 days ago from Sunny Florida

        I think this article will help a lot of people who have children suffering from eczema. My neice had it on her forearms when she was in school and was teased all the time. It was awful. My sister took her to a variety of doctors trying to find a cure. That was a long time ago, and she just simply outgrew it eventually. One doctor actually told my sister that her daughter was born without the top layer of her skin!

        Anyway, I think this is an excellent article, and I love all the possible natural solutions.

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