Gabriele Curcio was only a few months old when his parents noticed red, dry patches on his forearms. “They came and went, and didn’t seem to bother him at first,” says his mom, Kate. “But as he grew older, the patches would appear behind his knees and on his wrists, and they were clearly itchy — sometimes even painful.” Their doctor confirmed what they suspected: the Toronto baby had eczema.
Affecting an estimated 10 to 20 percent of children, eczema is a chronic inflammatory skin condition that tends to flare up and subside. Eczema’s cause is unknown, and although people with allergies have an increased incidence, eczema is not an allergy itself, according to Anne Rowan-Legg, a paediatrician at Ottawa’s Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.
The patches can appear anywhere, but are often seen in the creases of the wrists, elbows and knees, and can become cracked or infected. Rowan-Legg says that most cases are diagnosed in infancy and early childhood but, happily, about half of these kids will “outgrow” their eczema, or find symptoms have greatly improved, by puberty. In the meantime, baby eczema can cause a lot of misery.
Treatment for baby eczema is aimed at preventing flare-ups, and easing them when they do occur, though doctors may refer severe cases to a dermatologist:
Keeping the skin hydrated is the mainstay of treatment. Short, lukewarm baths should be followed by an application of a thick, non-irritating moisturizing cream or ointment while skin is still damp. Although it sounds counterintuitive, if bathwater stings, Rowan-Legg says that adding a handful of salt to the water will soothe the skin.
2. Avoid irritants
Choose unscented mild soaps and moisturizers formulated for eczema or sensitive skin (you may have to experiment to find the most effective cream for your child). Unscented laundry products and cotton clothing may also help.
3. Identify triggers
For kids with allergies, exposure to allergens can be a trigger. Overly dry air is another common one, which is why eczema may be worse in winter. At the same time, damp patches (where a baby drools or where sweat collects) can also make the condition worse.
4. Trim nails
Kids can’t help but scratch, but eczematous skin is easily damaged, which can cause infection.
5. Use prescription products as directed
Flaring patches are usually treated with corticosteroid cream. It’s effective, but it’s important to use it properly, since overuse can lead to thinning of the skin and other side effects.
6. Beat the itch
Cool compresses, or products with colloidal oatmeal or niacinamide, help ease the itching of baby eczema. If the discomfort keeps your child from sleeping, ask your doctor about trying an antihistamine at night.
A version of this article appeared in our November 2013 issue with the headline “Is it eczema?” p.38.