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Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is an inflammatory, non-contagious skin condition affecting about 30% of the U.S. population, mainly children and adolescents. It is characterized by chronically dry, itchy skin, and people with this condition may be more susceptible to skin infections. (1)
Managing Eczema in Children
The first step towards managing atopic dermatitis is to avoid potential triggers. These may include food or environmental allergens. (2) For example, wool has been shown to irritate the skin of children with eczema. (3)
Natural Treatment Options for Treating Eczema in Children
Here are more details for some home remedies to manage eczema in children.
1. Use a moisturizer
Get a good quality moisturizer, particularly an ointment rather than a cream, and apply it on your child’s skin to prevent dryness. Look for ointments that do not contain artificial dyes and chemicals.
It is best to apply moisturizers and oils when the skin is still wet after a bath or shower to seal in the moisture.
Natural moisturizers such as coconut oil or sunflower seed oil may also be helpful.
a. Sunflower seed oil
Sunflower oil improves the barrier function of the skin, (6) which in turn prevents skin dryness. Plus, it is safe to use as massage oil for babies.
A 2013 study published in Pediatric Dermatology reports that sunflower seed oil improved hydration of the skin in adults, which may have implications for neonatal skin care. (6)
b. Coconut oil
Coconut oil is another effective remedy for eczema, whether for a child or an adult. It has antifungal, antibacterial, antimicrobial, and antioxidant properties. Coconut oil works as a good moisturizer to help prevent your child’s skin from drying out. (7)
A study published in Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine reports that virgin coconut oil works as an excellent emollient and natural antibacterial agent, in addition to demonstrating anti-inflammatory activity. (3)
How to use:
- For topical use: Apply coconut oil directly on the affected skin several times a day to get relief from itching. Continue for as many days as needed until the symptoms are completely gone.
- For consumption: Include 1 to 2 tablespoons of extra virgin coconut oil in your child’s diet to help alleviate eczema symptoms and improve overall immunity. You can add it to your child’s food or drinks.
c. Wet to dry wraps
This method involves applying medication or moisturizer to damp skin, then layering with damp gauze and dry gauze. The wraps are left on for several hours or overnight and can help aggressively moisturize the skin and improve itching. (3)
2. Try using colloidal oatmeal
Colloidal oatmeal (oats ground into an extremely fine powder) is a good remedy for children suffering from eczema. It helps soothe and comfort the itchy skin as it contains anti-irritating, anti-inflammatory, and soothing properties that provide instant relief.
A 2012 study published in Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology found colloidal oatmeal to be a safe and effective ingredient in personal care products. It has low potential for irritation and allergy. (8)
Another study published in Dermatology Research and Practice in 2012 reports that consistent, frequent, and liberal use of emollients like colloidal oatmeal is recommended to maintain the skin barrier function in patients with mild atopic dermatitis, even in the absence of lesions. (9)
How to use:
- Add 1 cup of colloidal oatmeal to a bathtub filled with lukewarm water. Let your child soak in this water for at least 15 to 20 minutes. Use this remedy 1 or 2 times a day, depending on the severity of the skin condition.
- Alternatively, add a little water to a few tablespoons of colloidal oatmeal and let it sit until it thickens into a paste-like consistency. Apply this mixture on the itchy skin, cover it with a cloth and leave it on for 30 minutes. Use this remedy once daily.
3. Evening primrose oil can help provide relief
Studies have shown mixed findings, but some positive effects have been seen in eczema patients with the oral use or topical application of evening primrose oil on the affected skin. (10)
Evening primrose oil contains essential fatty acids that are necessary for normal skin barrier and function.
4. Keep a check on the diet (look for allergens)
One of the major causes of eczema flare-ups in children is food allergy. (13) If you think your child’s eczema may be caused by food, then allergy testing may be required. Talk to your doctor more about this.
At times it is slightly difficult to find out which food items might be causing eczema flare-ups since it may take several days for symptoms to appear. In this case, you may want to try an elimination diet.
Remove the suspected food from your child’s diet for a few weeks and see if you notice any change in symptoms. If not, you can then re-introduce that food over the course of a few days and again, observe for symptoms. You can remove foods sequentially and monitor for any signs of worsening or improving eczema. (14)
5. Give probiotics to your child
Probiotics are good bacteria that live in your gut that may help improve your child’s immune system and the strength of the skin barrier. Giving your child probiotics may have some effect in treating mild to moderate eczema.
A study published in Epidemiology shows that probiotics may also be beneficial in preventing allergic conditions such as eczema. The benefit can occur if the mother takes them during breastfeeding or if they are given to the child directly. (15)
Give probiotics 1–2 times daily to children affected by eczema to see how it may help.
Causes of Eczema in Children
Eczema is caused by a mixture of genetic and environmental factors which may include exposure to allergens, air pollution, and infections. (16)
The major problem in this disorder is a defect in the skin’s barrier that allows the loss of moisture, the introduction of allergens and later, inflammation.
The defect may be caused by an allergic trigger or a genetic mutation that impairs the skin’s barrier. The cases of atopic dermatitis have risen 2-3-fold in the industrialized nations, and have affected 15–20% of children and 1–3% of adults worldwide. (17)
Food allergy is closely associated with atopic dermatitis. About one-third of children with moderate to severe atopic dermatitis will have food allergies. Common food triggers for eczema may include dairy, egg, peanuts and other nuts, wheat, soy, and fish. (13)
Signs and Symptoms of Eczema in Children
Eczema appears as patches of red or dry skin that is often itchy and rough. It typically comes and goes (flares up). Symptoms of eczema in children usually range from mild to severe and may change from one outbreak to another. Over time, the skin may thicken and this may cause constant itching.
The disease typically affects the face and scalp in babies, and it typically appears in the folds of the knees and arms in older children. Traditional treatments for eczema include aggressive moisturization and topical steroid cream. (18)
Additional Tips to Deal With Eczema in Children
- Avoid contact with irritants, as determined by your child’s physician. Common irritants include animal dander, cigarette smoke, and chemical sprays.
- Teach your child to practice good skin care techniques.
- Heat and sweat can make eczema worse, so make sure your child does not play out in the sun for long hours. Keep the temperature of your child’s room cool at night to prevent sweating, which can irritate the skin.
- Keep your child’s fingernails cut short, as scratching may contribute to an infection.
- Avoid bubble baths and soaps, as they can irritate and dry out the skin. Choose a mild, fragrance-free cleanser instead.
- To manage dry skin and eczema, make sure your child eats a healthy and nutritious diet.
- Also, keep your child’s body hydrated by reminding him or her to drink water more often.
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Dr. Hina Shaikh, MD (Dermatology)
There are many triggers for eczema in children, one of them being food. Though any food can potentially be the cause, a few common food allergens are milk, nuts, chocolate, eggs, and soy just to name a few.
Eczema can be a very itchy condition, more so in infants and children, as they find it very difficult to control themselves from scratching their rashes.
A doctor will prescribe anti-itching medication to the child if the itching is severe. A few ways to reduce itching are:
1. Stop using harsh soaps and chemicals as they can irritate the skin.
2. Keep the skin hydrated by using fragrance-free moisturizers frequently and daily.
3. Avoid fragrance containing detergents and fabric softeners on clothing.
4. Avoid exposure to temperature extremes, which means ensuring that the environment the child is exposed to is neither too hot nor too cold. This also includes avoiding low humidity environments such as prolonged exposure to air-conditioners set at very low temperatures.
5. Avoid synthetic and woolen clothing. Avoid clothing that is tight, rough and rubs on areas of the body having the rashes.
6. If one suspects food allergies, it is better to consult a doctor for investigations and decisions regarding the child’s diet. However, parents play a big role in initially recognizing a lot of the trigger factors. If food is suspected, it is better to avoid that particular food item until investigated and ruled out as a cause of allergy.
Eczema flare-ups can take days, weeks, or months to subside depending on the cause, severity, and management of the eczema. It is important to ensure regular treatment as advised by the doctor, use moisturizers as advised.
Many patients stop using medications and moisturizers advised, switch back to fragrance containing products and basically get complacent once they find the rashes are looking a little better. This results in frequent flare-ups and causes more damage to the skin in the long run. Remember there are no shortcuts and magic therapies, just persistence and compliance.
Oils are primarily used as a moisturizing agent. Some oils which can be used are olive oil, liquid paraffin, and coconut oil. Again, ensure that the child is not allergic to these. If you suspect that using oil is causing increased itching, redness, burning sensation, then stop its use.
Oils work to keep the skin hydrated by trapping moisture in the skin, so make sure to apply oil immediately after a bath on damp skin.
One may use petroleum jelly as a moisturizer in children. Few points to keep in mind are to use it on moist skin after a bath, to avoid the ones containing perfumes or other additives, and avoid using it on open or oozing wounds.
• Allow the child short shower times, no longer than a few minutes.
• Avoid very hot or very cold water.
• Avoid bubble baths.
• Use a soap-free, fragrance-free cleanser for bath.
• Apply a moisturizing lotion just after a bath, and reapply throughout the day, especially if the skin appears a little dry. Ensure to reapply at bedtime, after wetting the skin if possible. Moisturizers should be perfume-free and not have too many unnecessary ingredients.
• Avoid vigorous body massages in infants and children as this may aggravate the rashes.
• Keep the fingernails short to avoid the damage caused when children scratch themselves. One can advocate use of thin mittens or even socks made of cotton on infant’s hands to avoid them from scratching their faces and body, especially when sleeping.
• Avoid perfume containing products, dusty environments, synthetic and woolen clothing.
• Sun protection on rashes is also useful. Avoid applying sunscreens directly on red or oozing rashes/wounds. Using physical methods of sun protection like hats, full sleeves clothes that are loose and airy may work.
• Do not apply very low temperature setting if using air-conditioning. The room temperature must be comfortable, not cold. If the child spends most of the day in an air-conditioned environment, please use moisturizers on the skin frequently to avoid the low humidity of the environment from drying the skin further.
• Air purifiers used at home are very helpful for children with allergies to dust and other airborne allergens.
• Do check the vitamin D levels and ensure it is within normal limits.
• Avoid feeding your child foods that he/she may be allergic to. If you are unsure if the child suffers from food allergies, then consult a doctor to investigate the same.
Last but not the least, remember that eczema can be controlled and improved. But this requires patience and compliance with treatments advised. Regular consults with the treating doctor and communication between the parents, child, and doctor regarding treatments advised, concerns about medication, and its usage is vital.
Eczema is generally a chronic condition which requires long term management through multiple interventions. This inflammatory skin condition can be especially irksome for kids as they tend to have lesser tolerance for discomfort and may not exercise the precaution needed. Thus, the adults have to step in and help the little ones through it.
Excessive dependence on medication to control flareups can increase the toxic load on your child’s body and result in other deleterious side effects later. So, it is better to try other natural alternatives like the ones mentioned in this article.