Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is an inflammation of the outer layers of the skin. This inflammation leads to a red, itchy, and scaly rash. The eczema rash may be present for a long period of time or it may come and go. It is common in children.
Eczema rash is caused by inflammation that causes skin irritation and damage. This inflammation is caused by an overreaction of the immune system. It is not known exactly why the immune system has this reaction but is thought to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
Eczema is more common in children who are of African or Asian descent.
Risk factors for eczema include:
- Asthma or hay fever
- Urban areas or places with low humidity
- A family history of eczema or allergic disorders
- Stress, especially if it leads to scratching
- Immunosuppressant medications
- Excess weight or obesity
Irritants that can initiate flare ups include:
- Very hot and very cold climates
- Exposure to allergens such as certain fabrics, perfumes in soaps, dust mites (common), foods, or nickel in jewelry
- Frequent washing of affected areas
- Scratching or rubbing of skin—eczema is known as the itch that rashes
- Use of rubber gloves in persons sensitive to latex
Eczema usually begins at 3-6 months of age. It may improve over time, usually by age 5-7 years. For some children, the condition may continue into adolescence and early adulthood.
The eczema rash may be present for a long period of time or it may come and go. It can appear anywhere on the body or in just a few areas that may vary by age. Symptoms may include:
- Dry, itchy skin
- Cracks behind the ears or in other skin creases
- Red rashes on the cheeks, arms, and legs
- Red, scaly rash
- Thick, leathery skin
- Crusting, oozing, or cracking of the skin
- Symptoms that worsen in the winter when the inside air is dry due to heating systems
You will be asked about your child’s symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The diagnosis is made by the appearance and location of the rash. Your child may be referred to a specialist.
There is no cure for eczema. Treatment is focused on managing symptoms.
Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for your child. The main goals of treatment are to:
- Heal the skin and keep it healthy
- Avoid skin infections in damaged skin
- Identify and avoid triggers to prevent flare-ups
Treatment options may vary. Your child’s doctor may recommend more than one depending on your child’s condition.
Irritation of the skin can start or worsen flare ups. Dry skin is one of the most common culprits. Steps to help decrease dry skin and flare-ups include:
- Limiting bath time to 1-3 times a week, 5-10 minutes at the most.
- Avoid using water that is too hot or cold during baths or showers.
- Using mild, unscented, bar soap or nonsoap cleanser.
- Use moisturizer daily, or more often as needed. These may be lotions, creams, or ointments, depending on the severity and location of the rask.
- Avoid irritants that trigger your eczema.
Skin infections and irritations need to be treated right away. The longer the inflammation remains, the more damage is done.
In some cases, medication may also be needed to manage flare ups or symptoms:
- Prescription creams and ointments containing cortisone, tacrolimus, or pimecrolimus to decrease inflammation
- Prescription or over the counter antihistamines to help prevent itching
- Oral medications, such as prednisone or cyclosporine for severe cases
Infections may also need to be treated with:
- Antibiotics applied directly to the skin or taken by mouth
If skin care and medications are not effective, light therapy may be used. This therapy exposes the affected skin to specialized light. Treatment options may include:
- Treatment with ultraviolet A light and 5-methoxypsoralen (PUVA)
- Photopheresis—for severe cases
Eczema is difficult to prevent. This is most true when there is a strong family history.
You may be able to reduce your child’s risk of eczema by:
- For bottle-fed infants who are at high risk for eczema, using a certain kind of formula that contains hydrolyzed casein or 100% whey protein
- For newborns who are at high risk for eczema, applying a daily moisturizer may help reduce the risk of eczema.
- Exposing your child to pets at an early age
- Taking probiotics while pregnant and after giving birth if you are breastfeeding
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 11/2015 -
- Update Date: 01/04/2016 -