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Eczema is a common skin condition that usually begins before your child is one year old. The affected skin is dry, red and itchy. Sometimes these areas of skin can become cracked, weepy and then scab over.
Unfortunately there is no cure for eczema. However, there are many ways to keep eczema under control and help your child feel more comfortable. Eczema is not contagious.
Signs and symptoms of eczema
- Babies with eczema usually have a red, dry rash on their face. The rash may be on their scalp, body, arms and legs or behind their ears. The rash is very itchy and may keep them awake at night.
- In toddlers and older children, the eczema rash is often in the skin creases around the knees, wrists, elbows and ankles.
- In some children the rash can cover their entire body.
It is common for the severity of the eczema to change, and you will notice that sometimes your child's eczema is mild, while at other times it gets worse. It is important to effectively manage the eczema and control it as soon as it flares up.
Secondary bacterial or viral skin infections are also common in children with eczema, especially when the eczema is not well controlled. Do not allow anyone with a cold sore to kiss your child, as the eczema may become infected with the cold sore virus. The signs of a secondary infection are weepy, crusted and broken areas of eczema.
What causes eczema?
The cause of eczema is not known. If a member of your family has eczema, asthma or hay fever, then it is more likely that your child will have eczema. Some children with eczema may also develop asthma or hay fever.
Eczema can be triggered by a number of things, such as:
- becoming overheated with clothing, blankets, heaters
- dryness of the skin
- irritation from soaps, detergents, fabrics or other chemicals
- food allergies or intolerances
- allergies to environmental allergens, such as dust mites, plant pollens or animal fur
- viruses and other common infections.
Care at home
Eczema can be well controlled at home in most children by identifying and avoiding triggers. Using the following strategies will help control the eczema and make your child more comfortable.
Avoid things that irritate the skin
Each child may react to different things, and it may take a while to work out what is irritating your child's skin. Some common things that can irritate the skin include:
- dummies, dribbling or food around the mouth – apply thick moisturiser around the mouth, wash the skin with a soft, wet towel after eating and then reapply the moisturiser
- prickly materials, such as woollen or acrylic clothing, bedding and car seat covers
- detergents, soaps, bubble baths, antiseptic washes
- toothpaste – use a product without SLS as an ingredient
- environmental allergens, such as pet fur, pollen and house dust mites – if you think your child may be allergic to one of these allergens, take them to see an allergist.
Keep the skin moisturised
A thick, plain moisturiser with no fragrance should be used as often as necessary on your child, even when the skin is clear of eczema. Some children will require moisturiser application once or twice a day, while others will need it more often. Thicker creams are more effective than lotions.
Fragrance-free moisturisers, bath oils or soap-free body wash (not plant-based) should be used in the bath and shower.
Keep your child cool
Heat is the most common trigger for eczema. You can keep your child cool by:
- dressing your child in one or two thin layers of cotton clothing
- removing doonas and woollen blankets from your child's bed and using a cotton blanket or sheet instead
- keeping your house below 20°C during the day
- keep your child’s room at or below 15°C overnight
- telling teachers at your childcare centre, kindergarten or school how to dress your child appropriately.
It is a good idea to bathe your child at least once a day in a cool bath. The bath should be no hotter than 30°C, and have one to two capfuls of plain, non-perfumed bath oil added.
Control your child's itching
Scratching makes the eczema worse and can cause infection. Try these ideas to help them stop scratching:
- Apply a soft, cool, wet towel to the itchy area for immediate relief, and leave on for 5–10 minutes. Remove the towel and apply a thick layer of moisturiser.
- Apply wet dressings at bedtime, particularly if the eczema is not controlled within 24–48 hours of starting cortisone treatment (if prescribed - see below). Wet dressings should be stopped when the eczema has cleared and then used again if it flares up. Wet dressings are very effective and are usually only needed for three to five nights. (See
Wet dressing instructions)
- A wet T-shirt or singlet underneath a thin layer of cotton clothing is a good way to reduce the itch and redness on your child's body. You can repeat this throughout the day and night until the itch and redness subside.
- Use a mineral salt spray (available at pharmacies) for immediate relief of itch.
- Distract your child when they are scratching.
- Keep your child's fingernails short and clean.
Eczema and diet
Most children with eczema do not have any reactions to food. However, in some children, food allergy may be a trigger.
- Food allergy needs to be considered in babies with very widespread eczema who are not responding to eczema treatment.
- Sometimes older children can be intolerant to acidic foods and preservatives, leading to eczema breakouts around the mouth. This is not an allergy.
- All foods should be considered 'innocent until proven guilty'. It is important not to restrict your child’s diet unless you have been advised to do so by a doctor, allergist or dietitian. An allergist may choose to test your child to confirm any food allergies.
When to see a doctor
Take your child to the GP if:
- your child’s eczema is not getting better after two days of regular treatment
- your child is showing signs of infection: weepy, crusted and broken areas of eczema
- you are concerned about your child’s health or skin for any reason.
If your child's eczema has developed a bacterial infection, they may need antibiotics. Very occasionally, if your child has a severely infected rash, they may need to be treated in hospital.
Bleach baths may be recommended if your child's eczema is infected and difficult to control. See
Formula for an eczema bath.
If your child’s eczema is complicated or difficult to treat, a doctor or dermatology nurse practitioner will prepare an eczema treatment plan for your child.
Your doctor may prescribe a cortisone-based cream or ointment. Cortisone is a natural hormone that is produced by the body. Cortisones are very effective in controlling eczema, and are safe if used as directed.
Weaker cortisones are used on your child’s face, and stronger cortisones are used on their body. It is important to apply the correct cortisone to all areas of eczema, even if the skin is open. Any medicines, creams and ointments should be used as prescribed by the doctor.
Even though weak cortisone creams are available over the counter from the pharmacy, it is important to get a cream or lotion that is suitable for your child, and that you know how to apply it properly. Seek medical advice before using over-the-counter cortisone treatments on your child.
Removing your child’s scabs
If the eczema becomes crusted or scabs over, it is important to remove the scabs. The eczema treatment won’t reach the skin if scabs are in the way. To remove scabs, give your child a cool bath for 30 minutes to soften the scabs. Then before getting them out of the bath, wipe the crusts off with a soft, wet towel. Once the scabs are removed, your child’s eczema treatment plan should be followed again, with creams applied on the open skin.
Key points to remember
- There is no cure for eczema but it can be well controlled.
- It is common for the severity of the eczema to change, and it is important to control the eczema as soon as it flares up.
- To control eczema, keep your child cool, moisturise them frequently, and keep them away from things that irritate their skin.
- For eczema that's difficult to manage, ask your doctor to complete an eczema treatment plan for your child.
For more information
Common questions our doctors are asked
Will the treatments cure eczema?
No. Eczema can be well controlled in most children by looking after the skin as suggested. This does not mean the eczema is cured. For many children, adequate skin care including cortisone treatment will need to be continued for many years. Your child may grow out of their eczema, especially with a good treatment plan. However, they will always have sensitive and dry skin.
Can my child have all the usual vaccinations?
Nearly all children with eczema can have all their vaccinations (including measles) in the normal way. This includes children who have egg allergy. Occasionally, the eczema may flare up after immunisations.
Can my child go swimming?
Yes, if the eczema is not flaring up. Before swimming, apply a layer of moisturiser from top-to-toe. Soon after swimming, wash the skin thoroughly in a cool shower or bathe your child with some bath oil, then reapply the moisturiser. If the eczema flares that night, apply a wet dressing just before your child goes to bed.
I’ve heard that cortisone is dangerous to use on children because it is a steroid, and steroids can have bad side effects. Is this right?
Cortisone treatments are very effective in controlling eczema, and as long as they are used as directed they are safe for children to use. Weak cortisone treatments won’t have any negative effects on a child's growth and development.
Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital General Medicine and Dermatology departments, and Centre for Community Child Health. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.
Reviewed March 2018.
This information is awaiting routine review. Please always seek the most recent advice from a registered and practising clinician.
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