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Coping With Your Child's Eczema

Learn how to keep the itching at bay.


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Living with eczema can make life miserable for you and your kid. From red, irritated skin to nonstop itching, helping your child deal with it is no easy feat. “It’s not just a skin rash. It can have serious effects on your child’s health and quality of life,” says A. Yasmine Kirkorian, MD, pediatric dermatologist at Children’s National Health System and assistant professor of dermatology and pediatrics at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “Eczema can interfere with your child’s ability to sleep and concentrate in school, and may lead to frequent skin infections.”

Eczema affects about 13 percent of US children (that’s 9.6 million kids) according to the National Eczema Association, but the cause isn’t clear. “We do know there’s a genetic predisposition,” says Marc Glashofer, MD, a dermatologist at The Dermatology Group in West Orange. “Kids who have parents with a history of eczema or asthma are more likely to develop it.” Research shows the immune system may also play a role. Irritants in the environment can aggravate your child’s immune system, triggering a rash.

WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?

Atopic dermatitis, the most common type of eczema, is a scaly rash that typically appears for the first time on a baby’s face or scalp. Early signs may be subtle, like seeing your infant rub his head in an attempt to scratch an itch. In school-age kids, eczema commonly surfaces in the form of a red, itchy rash on the face, back, chest or the inner folds of elbows and knees. It can range from dime-sized to large connected patches, says Glashofer. Eczema’s known to flare up for the first time later in life, too. Both teens and adults can get eczema, especially if they’re consistently stressed or have weak immune systems. The condition typically waxes and wanes.

“As a parent, you’re trying to identify the triggers, but you sometimes can’t tell,” says Kirkorian. “Eczema is unpredictable and can change overnight.” It can also be easily confused with other skin issues, like scabies—a contagious condition of very itchy skin caused by tiny mites—and allergic contact dermatitis. That’s why it’s best to have a pediatrician or dermatologist diagnose your child.

WHAT ARE THE TRIGGERS?

Anything that disrupts the skin barrier can trigger a flare up, says Kirkorian. These irritants include perfumed soaps, shampoos, bubble baths or any products that contain fragrances, like laundry detergent or dryer sheets. Products with dyes or alcohol, like hand sanitizer, can also irritate sensitive skin.

Some kids suffer in hot weather, especially when they sweat, while others are worse during the winter when humidity is low indoors and it’s cold outside. Hot water is especially irritating. While bathing once a day is fine, make sure the water’s lukewarm, and limit baths and showers to 10 minutes. Don’t scrub or use washcloths, which are too rough. Wash with a mild cleanser rather than soap. Try products like Cetaphil Skin Cleanser and focus on cleaning the “stinky parts,” such as armpits, privates and feet, advises Kirkorian.

Not using moisturizer after taking a bath or showering can lead to problems, too. Pat skin dry after bathing, then apply a thick moisturizer. Make sure to stick to “fragrance-free” products—“unscented” ones can contain a masked fragrance. Finally, dress your kid in breathable cotton, not wool or synthetic fabrics. And as with most skin conditions, stress seems to worsen eczema.

HOW DO YOU RELIEVE THE ITCH?

The most important step in controlling discomfort is keeping her skin hydrated. Teach her that moisturizing should be part of her daily routine, just like brushing her teeth. Slather on fragrance-freecreams or ointments (lotions don’t seal in moisture as well). Look for those that  contain ceramides, a type of oily wax our skin naturally produces. Steer clear of anything greasy (you may need to test several brands). You can also calm the itch by using colloidal oatmeal products in the bath and applying cool compresses to your child’s rash.

If over-the-counter products don’t give her relief, your dermatologist may recommend prescription topical corticosteroids to be dabbed on the rash (but not on healthy skin). “Topical steroids ‘put out the fire,’” says Glashofer. “They’re usually used for a week or two and then again when there’s a flare.” You can expect relief within days. Other options are topical calcineurin inhibitors, aka steroid-free meds that stop the immune system from reacting with eczema symptoms.

Before you consider home remedies, know that there’s little evidence they work—and some natural products can actually cause irritation. “I’m skeptical about natural and homeopathic remedies,” cautions Kirkorian. “These products aren’t regulated by the FDA, and many natural substances, such as olive oil, can be quite irritating.” Though the jury’s still out, virgin or cold-pressed coconut oil is the one substance that’s okay to try, adds Kirkorian.

WHAT ELSE CAN YOU DO?

Run a humidifier in his bedroom in the winter since there’s less moisture in the air, says Glashofer. It might not prevent symptoms, but it certainly can’t hurt. Be sure to clean it regularly according to the manufacturer’s instructions. If he’s still scratching all night, your doctor may suggest a sedating antihistamine at bedtime to help him sleep, says Glashofer. Does your kid scratch affected areas in her sleep? Make sure to cut her nails and consider putting cotton gloves on her hands at night to help keep her from scratching.

Though it’s a natural reaction, nagging him not to scratch isn’t helpful. “Eczema must be medically treated, but there’s a behavioral component to the itching, too,” says Kirkorian. “Sometimes we partner with a psychologist to teach kids techniques to recognize the itch and distract themselves. When your mind isn’t on the itch, you won’t scratch.”

Though eczema is a recurring condition, you can still manage symptoms with a healthy skin care regimen. If you’re struggling to control her symptoms, make sure to follow up with her pediatrician or dermatologist, says Kirkorian. “We have tipswe can share and medications  to use as needed to improve your child’s quality of life.”

Arricca Elin SanSone is a New York-based health and lifestyle writer.

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