What is baby eczema / infant eczema?
Baby eczema, or infant eczema, is a highly common and treatable skin condition which typically first occurs in children before the age of five. Also known as atopic eczema, infantile atopic dermatitis or just atopic dermatitis, the condition results in red, dry, itchy and cracked skin that may sometimes crack and bleed. Eczema can affect the whole body, though the hands, face and neck are the most commonly affected areas in babies.
Baby eczema will generally disappear before the child reaches their teens, but in some cases can continue into teenage and adulthood. The condition can be treated with a variety of creams, ointments and minor environmental changes.
Symptoms of baby eczema
Eczema in babies appears as dry, red, scaly, itchy and flaky skin. In young babies, the scalp, face, ears and neck are the most commonly affected areas. In older babies, the arms and legs may be more commonly affected, especially around the elbows and knees, as well as the diaper area.  In severe cases, baby eczema can cause painful cracking of the skin, with oozing and bleeding. As children get older, the skin that is affected by the condition normally becomes less red but scalier, leatherier and thicker – this is known as lichenification and may also occur as a result of persistent scratching.
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Causes and triggers of baby eczema
The causes of baby eczema are unclear, though it is generally agreed that the condition stems from a mixture of genetic and environmental factors. Knowing what triggers baby eczema can be useful in keeping the condition under control. Common triggers include:
- Dry skin: When the skin becomes too dry it becomes susceptible to rashes and flare-ups of eczema.
- Moisture on the skin: From sweat, milk, saliva or wet diapers.
- Chemical irritants: Natural or artificial chemicals found in everyday products can make an outbreak of eczema more likely. These chemicals can be found in products such as shampoo, soap, laundry detergent and disinfectants or surface cleaners.
- Dust mites: Some research shows that prolonged exposure to dust mites increases the likelihood of an infant developing eczema. Further research in the area suggests that reducing the number of dust mites in the home makes little difference to the frequency and severity of eczema flares after the first diagnosis.
- Stress: Babies can become extremely irritated by eczema which can in turn exacerbate the condition further.
Diagnosing baby eczema
Diagnosing eczema in babies is relatively easy due to the visibility and characteristic appearance of the condition. A doctor will examine the baby and judge whether the symptoms are a result of eczema (atopic dermatitis or contact dermatitis, which results from exposure to allergens or irritants and can usually be treated quickly.
Baby eczema treatment
As soon as the presence of baby eczema becomes apparent, treatment options should be explored quickly to avoid the condition spreading or becoming more severe. Understanding and avoiding the potential causes and triggers of baby eczema is key to managing the condition, but a variety of further options are also available. In particularly severe cases, a consultation with a specialist dermatologist may be necessary.
Moisturizing ointments and creams
Using a moisturizing ointment or cream to keep the skin soft and moist is key to tackling baby eczema. Moisturizers are classified according to their oil and water content, with the most effective moisturizers containing a higher amount of oil.
Ointments and barrier creams should be applied to the skin in a thick layer at least twice per day and immediately after bathing. They can be bought over the counter at the pharmacy or be prescribed by a doctor.
Mild topical steroids (steroids applied to the skin) can be used to reduce the redness and soreness of baby eczema flare-ups. These steroids are perfectly safe when applied correctly and under the guidance of a healthcare professional. They are, however, generally intended for short-term use, unless otherwise advised by a doctor.
Unscented, additive-free and dye-free cleansers only should be used on babies experiencing eczema. A range of such products are available and should be used in conjunction with moisturizing ointments or topical steroids. It is generally advised that a doctor’s opinion should be sought before using these products.
An appropriate bathing routine is critical to treating baby eczema. Baths are recommended over showers and should be warm rather than hot and last no longer than 10 minutes. They should also be followed by the application of prescribed topical lotions and ointments.
Baby eczema FAQs
Q: Will my child grow out of eczema?
A: In most cases, yes. Eczema generally develops in children from the age of two months-old and peters out by around three years-old. However, some children can experience eczema into the teenage years and even into adulthood.
Q: Are there any home remedies that can be used to treat baby eczema?
A: There are a number of home remedies that can be used to treat some of the symptoms of baby eczema. However, it is generally a good idea to seek a doctor’s opinion and follow the treatment path outlined. Bathing in water mixed with oatmeal, using a humidifier and the application of coconut oil are among the most common home remedies.
Q: What does the term “atopic” mean?
A: Atopic (as in atopic eczema or atopic dermatitis) refers to a predisposition toward developing certain allergic hypersensitivity reactions such as eczema, asthma or hay fever. Atopic eczema in babies and atopic dermatitis in babies are simply synonyms of baby eczema.
Q: What is dermatitis?
A: Dermatitis is an umbrella term for a group of conditions that cause inflammation of the skin. Although the different types of dermatitis have differing causes, most involve the onset of red, itchy and dry skin or a rash. Baby eczema, or atopic dermatitis, is one form of dermatitis. Others include contact dermatitis (caused by the skin coming into contact with irritants) and seborrheic dermatitis (which can cause a flare-up of red skin, scaly patches and dandruff).
Q: What is the relationship between food allergies and baby eczema?
A: Food allergies are common in infants with eczema. However, they are separate conditions and it is not accurate to say that food allergies cause eczema. Instead, it appears that having eczema may increase the chances of an infant developing allergies to certain foods. A flare-up of both conditions may cause a rash or red, itchy skin, however, eczema is typically focussed on specific parts of the body (hands, face, neck) while an allergic reaction is more unpredictable.
Baby Centre. “Baby eczema: causes, symptoms, treatments and creams.” October, 2013. Accessed July 4, 2017. ↩ ↩
HealthLinkBC. “Eczema and Food Allergy in Babies and Young Children.” July, 2011. Accessed April 26, 2018. ↩