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FAQ - Parents' Guide to Eczema  Answer To Frequently Asked Child Medical Question

Parents' Guide to Eczema

What is eczema?

Atopic dermatitis, or eczema, is an inflammation of the skin, which causes redness and intense itching.  It may be associated with asthma or hay fever.  A child with eczema has sensitive skin, which is irritated very easily.

Why does my child have eczema?

Atopic eczema is believed to be a genetic disorder resulting in "sensitive skin".  Often there is someone else in the family with eczema, asthma or hay fever, but this is not always the case.  There are many external factors, which may influence eczema on a day-to-day basis.

Will my child "grow out" of eczema?

The tendency for sensitive skin will remain with your child into teenage years.  However, your child's eczema will gradually improve, as they get older.  The age at which eczema ceases to be a problem varies, but many children show significant improvement by the age of 5 years and most will have only occasional trouble by the time they are teenagers.  Only a few continue to have troublesome eczema in adult life.

Is eczema due to food allergy?

Although many people believe strongly that food allergies causes eczema, this has not been verified by scientific studies.  Children with eczema have hypersensitive skin, which reacts to many materials and substances, which come in contact with the skin surface.  Some feel that food allergy may contribute to severe eczema that is resistant to treatment in a subset of infants and young children.  This is rarer in older children and adults. Eliminating suspected foods or other "allergens" is not usually helpful. If allergy is suspected, generally a referral for allergy evaluation is recommended.  Children with eczema usually demonstrate multiple positive reactions on the skin tests, which are of little use in treatment.  Blood allergy tests are similarly unhelpful.

Are steroid ointments dangerous?

Not if used correctly.  Topical steroid preparations vary in their strength.  The use of a mild or moderately strong topical steroid is generally quite safe if monitored by your doctor.  Parents are often anxious about the use of topical steroids, but these worries stem from the misuse of the very strong steroids, which may cause problems, such as thinning of the skin, and strong steroids should not be used routinely to treat children.

The long-term use of a mild topical steroid (e.g. 1% hydrocortisone ointment) applied once or twice daily to the areas of eczema is safe.  (On the face of the very young, it is better to use this daily for less than two weeks.)

Children who require strong topical steroids or prolonged use of moderate-strength steroids are good candidates for a topical immune modifier.

How much steroid ointment should I put on the skin?

Cover the eczema (the red and pink areas of the skin) with a fine film of ointment so that the surface of the skin glistens in the light.  Ointment the length of one fingertip should cover an arm or leg.  Always apply the ointment or cream in a downward direction leaving a film on the surface.  Do NOT rub it in to make it disappear.

Is it harmful to have a bath?

Children will often scratch when undressed for the bath, so it is important that you have the bath ready and then undress your child and promptly put them in the tub.  A scratching frenzy while undressed for the bath may make your child's skin much worse.

Bathing keeps the skin clean and free from crusts (scabs) and scales, which helps prevent infection.  It is often helpful to add suitable oil to the bath water to prevent the skin from drying out.  Soaking in the water for 10 minutes will help restore moisture and soften the skin.  When the bath is finished, immediately apply the moisturizer to the skin while it is wet.  Do not use a towel except on the hair.  Avoid ordinary soaps, which are an irritant, alkaline, and often perfumed.  It is best to use Cetaphil cleanser to cleanse the skin.  This is well tolerated and easy to use.  The temperature of the bath water should be cool and the bathroom warm.  Avoid sudden changes in temperature which will make the skin itch.

Are antihistamine drugs addictive?

No.  Antihistamine medicines are not addictive and there is no evidence to suggest that long-term use is dangerous.  Antihistamines reduce the itching and sometimes act as a sedative.  They are therefore useful at night to help sleeping.  The bedtime dose should be given at least half an hour to an hour before the child goes to bed.  Non-sedative antihistamines are sometimes prescribed during the day.  These may help and are especially useful for those children who suffer with hay fever during the summer months.

Antihistamine creams or lotions should NOT be used on eczema as they may cause an allergic reaction.  They also often contain higher doses of antihistamine that would be taken by mouth.

Are the bacteria that live on the skin of children with eczema important?

Yes.  Eczema seems to attract certain bacteria, in particular Staphylococcus aureus, which are found on the surface of the skin in the majority of children with eczema.  The presence of Staphylococcus aureus on the skin does not necessarily indicate infection.  It has been suggested that children with eczema may be hypersensitive to some of these bacteria and that this may aggravate the condition.  Adding ¼ cup of bleach to your child's bath water one to two times per week may help decrease this bacteria, as well as washing towels and washcloths frequently.

Children with eczema are susceptible to skin infections, because of scratching and splitting of the skin.  An acute flare-up of eczema is often associated with secondary bacterial infection and usually requires treatment with an antibiotic.  When infected, your child will feel very unwell.  If this is suspected, you must contact your doctor as soon as possible.  It is important to keep children with eczema away from anyone with an active cold sore as they may spread the virus over widespread areas of skin.  Children with eczema are also susceptible to warts and molluscum contagiosum.  These are often numerous small white bumps and persistent – it may take 6 months to one year, and sometimes even longer – but eventually they do disappear – with or without treatment!

Is it better to breastfeed?

Yes, if possible.  Although there is no evidence that breast feeding will prevent your child developing eczema, breast feeding does seem to have a protective effect in relation to severity during the early months of life and should therefore be encouraged.

Should my child be on a diet?

It is the generally accepted view that children with eczema should not automatically be put on a special diet.  Many parents are concerned that eczema is caused by something the child is eating; however, routine exclusion diets are usually unhelpful.

Eczema in the sun

Eczema usually improves in the sun, especially on vacation.  It is important that children with eczema "keep cool" in the hot weather and wear loose clothes.  Your child with eczema may develop heat rash easily if the skin is overheated.  It is advisable to protect the skin from burning, using a suitable sunscreen product.  It is sometimes helpful for the child to wear a loose wet T-shirt in hot weather to cool down the skin and relieve the itching.


Swimming in the sea is excellent for eczema.  In a pool, the chlorine may or may not irritate the skin.  Sometimes children's skin actually does better after swimming.  If irritation from swimming occurs, apply a thick moisturizer, such as Vaseline beforehand, and afterwards soak in a bath with an oily bath additive.


Your baby should receive all the routine immunizations, like any other baby.  There is no cause for concern.  Occasionally, any of the immunizations may aggravate eczema for a few days afterwards, but this is not usually a problem.

What things make eczema worse?

Eczema is influenced by many environmental factors, which are important to take into account in the day-to-day management of eczema.  These factors are problems when they directly contact the skin surface.

Aggravating factors include:

Synthetic or woolen fabrics – children should be dressed in cotton clothes or as high a percentage of cotton as possible.Detergents, fabric softeners and dryer sheets – use mild products such as Ivory Snow, Dreft or Allergen Free Cheer or All.  In general, the heavy duty or super-whitening detergents are more irritating to the skin.  Avoid dryer sheets (i.e. Bounce).Irritant foods and drooling – high-acid foods such as citrus fruits and tomatoes can cause eczema around the mouth.  This is often made worse by lip licking and dribbling.  It is helpful to apply a protective barrier of Vaseline around the mouth 2-3 times daily and prior to meals.  The infant who is drooling often has "chapped" skin around the mouth, on the chest, or on the hands.  Pat dry with a soft cloth and use Vaseline or other moisturizers on the areas.Cigarette smoke – in an enclosed room, fumes will irritate the skin.  It is best to ban smoking within the home.Dogs and cats – virtually all furry pets will produce a skin reaction in a child with eczema.  Cats and dogs leave their dander everywhere and so the child is always at risk, even if the animal itself is not around.  Avoid cats and dogs in the house, and especially in the bedroom.

Other practical advice

In addition to the above, nails should be kept short and excessive heat should be avoided.  Bed linens should be cotton.  Pillows should be feather-free and covered in cotton.  Good general ventilation in the house is important.  A home humidifier may help.  Hard water may irritate the skin and use of a water softener may help.

School can present problems and it is important to work closely with the teacher.  It is best if the child is seated in the center of the class, away from the door, windows and radiators.  They must avoid contact with any guinea pigs, hamsters or rabbits in the school.

They should take their own special soap and moisturizing cream to school.  Most children will apply their own creams at break and lunchtime, but this must be supervised.  If properly informed, most schools will cooperate and help in this situation.  It is important that children do not miss school because of their eczema.

What is the risk of my child developing asthma?

Children with eczema have a three-fold increased risk of developing asthma compared to other children.  This should not cause undue anxiety.  In most cases the asthma is mild and easily controlled with appropriate treatment.  It is only in the minority that asthma is troublesome.

What is the risk of my child having severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis)?

Fortunately, this problem is very rare.  In exceptional cases a severe and potentially dangerous allergic reaction can be caused by an insect bite (e.g. wasp or bee sting) a particular food (e.g. peanuts, shellfish, eggs) or a medicine (e.g. penicillin).  If a child is at risk, parents should have a pre-loaded adrenaline (epinephrine) injection at home for emergency use.  This should be discussed with your doctor.

What is the risk of my next child having eczema?

If you have one affected child then the risk of your next child having it is around 25%.  If both parents are affected, the risk rises to 40%.  It is important to remember that the severity of eczema can vary within the same family, so that even if the next child is affected it may well be much less of a problem.

Are alternative or complementary treatments useful?

There are no scientific studies that support claims that homeopathy, allergy shots, Chinese herbal medicines, acupuncture, spinal adjustments, or therapeutic touch can improve eczema.  These are simply testimonials and never have been proven to benefit eczema.  Eczema waxes and wanes, and there are times when some changes seem to help, but will not help the next time.  Many parents seek alternative medications out of frustration, but the most reliable success has been when there is focus on treating the sensitive skin.

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