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Eczema causes an inflammation of the skin, leaving it dry, irritable, swollen and itchy. A red, bumpy rash, or clear oozing bumps may also appear. The face, neck, or behind the knees or elbows are the most common sites for eczema to show up.

Whenever my son was teething he would drool excessively, which would result in the inevitable break out of eczema. I’d treat each flare up with a prescribed cream that cost a small fortune. However, it did make me question what alternative treatments exist and if one can avoid eczema altogether.

Dr Adrian Morris from The Allergy Clinic in Cape Town says more than half of children with eczema will outgrow it. But, it can flare up or persist into adulthood. Morris adds that children often develop eczema if their parents have a predisposition to or suffer from allergies themselves.

Eczema results when the skin barrier is damaged or impaired, and therefore, can’t retain sufficient moisture.

This can be aggravated by a number of things:

  • Contact with allergens. Food allergies in particular can trigger eczema in infants and younger children. While, not the cause of the eczema, it will often aggravate it. Children with eczema are also prone to developing allergies. And, they may have a sensitivity to chemicals in soaps or detergents.
  • Environmental factors, such as dry weather, extreme cold or heat.
  • Stress often triggers eczema in adults.

Prevention is better than cure so, if possible, figure out what the aggravating factors are and try to avoid them.

Read more about rashes and birthmarks.

Here are some additional ways to prevent or remedy an inflammation:

  • Moisturise with an emollient. Apply frequently, even if there aren’t any symptoms, and especially after bathing, showering or swimming.
  • Replace perfumed soaps and lotions with mild or hypoallergenic ones instead. “Fragrances, parabens and preservatives irritate the skin. Ointments contain less added preservatives than creams, so are best to use as day-to-day emollients,” says Morris. Morris also cautions against using soaps with sodium lauryl sulphate as this removes the natural protective oils from the skin.
  • Avoid acidic foods such as tomatoes or pineapples that may trigger a reaction.
  • Babies, pregnant women from their second trimester and breastfeeding moms can take probiotics, daily.
  • Bifidobacteria or Acidophilus-based probiotics seem to stimulate gut immunity and reduce eczema.
  • A vitamin D deficiency makes children susceptible to allergies. Morris suggests spending time outdoors in the sunshine – but remember to apply sunscreen.
  • Use an enzyme-free, or non-biological laundry detergent. Double rinse washing and wash new clothes or linen to get rid of any chemicals that may be lurking.
  • Break the itch-scratch cycle by cutting fingernails short. Alternatively, use cotton gloves on babies to prevent them scratching themselves. Scratching can lead to infections, making skin more prone to flare-ups.
  • Avoid tight or rough textures, such as wool. Cotton and linen clothing is preferable.
  • Dust mites may trigger a reaction. Try to get rid of them by washing linen frequently at high temperatures, vacuuming the mattress, using a dust-tight mattress cover, and airing out the room regularly.
  • Treat acute flare-ups with steroid cream to get the eczema under control early on. The newer steroid creams with molecules such as mometasone and fluticasone are more effective and cause less skin thinning and pigmentation. Use them sparingly and episodically to control eczema (such as over weekends) even in young children. It is advisable to speak to a doctor or dermatologist before using this or other medicines.

Eczema and breastfeeding

Some experts believe it helps to breastfeed your baby for at least the first six months and delay the introduction of solids as a means of avoiding allergies. If you are breastfeeding, food allergies may be responsible for your child’s flare-ups. Try cutting out cow’s milk, peanuts, eggs, soy, wheat and citrus fruits from your diet. Then assess whether the eczema improves. If you aren’t breastfeeding and your child doesn’t have an allergy to cow’s milk, you could use a hypoallergenic, partially hydrolysed formula.

Sensitive skin issues

Eczema is not the only skin condition that affects children.

Here are a few others to look out for:

  • Baby acne presents as small red bumps or pimples. It should clear within a few days or weeks without treatment, but if it persists, speak to your paediatrician.
  • Heat rash is caused by exposure to extreme heat and often manifests as small red or pink pimples on the head, neck and shoulders.
  • Hives (or welts) usually appear as a result of allergies. A breakout of hives will lead to itching and burning. This can often be treated with an antihistamine.
  • Impetigo presents as pus-filled round lesions on the face and body. If you suspect your baby has impetigo, see your doctor as a course of antibiotics will be needed to treat it.
  • Nappy rash is common and happens if a baby’s wet or soiled nappy has not been changed for a long time. To treat nappy rash, try leave a nappy off for a while to air the affected area and apply generous amounts of barrier cream.

Find out more about soothing your sick baby.