Itching for a solution to eczema

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A baby with a serious eczema rash. Photo: Getty Images

Being a parent can be absolutely mystifying. Most of us didn’t study medicine, so it’s so easy to miss the signs that something’s wrong, or confuse one problem with another. Or you might not mention anything to your doctor, as you don’t feel you’ve spotted anything “serious”.

In our case, our little boy was developing eczema, but it took us a while to realise.

He was nine months old when we first noticed changes. He developed what appeared to be scratches in the middle of his back. They looked like thin scars, as if our cat had scratched him. We noticed this on the days he spent at family day care, and wondered if something in that home was affecting him. We were already seeing a paediatrician for our son’s strong reflux, so we asked him to take a look; he suggested grass seeds might be the problem. We asked our day care provider to try to minimise his playtime on the grassy area of her home, then thought about what else we could do.

My wife and I worked on the assumption our son had sensitive skin, and looked around our home. In terms of clothing, he only wore natural fibres so synthetic fabrics weren’t to blame. Bath time may have been a problem, as in recent months we’d started giving our son bubble baths. We suspected the bubble solution contained problematic chemicals so we replaced it, along with our regular soap, with an oatmeal-based bath oil recommended by our GP. We also swapped our high-powered brand-name laundry detergent for a green ‘plant-based’ alternative. And we started to see some improvement.

For the next few months the dryness and broken skin seemed to reduce – but then it spread from his upper back to his ankles, arms and behind his knees. Our family doctor said it was eczema, and we began moisturising our little boy each day with an oatmeal moisturiser. His skin seemed to improve, and did so again when summer began and we started swimming in the ocean baths. Our GP said this was a good idea. But by age two and a half, our son’s eczema started getting worse.

We didn’t know it at the time, but this seems to be when his Coeliac disease was starting to make its presence felt. Over the next year as we struggled with our son’s lethargy, anxiety and diarrhoea, while his eczema also increased in frequency and severity of flare-ups. When we finally went gluten-free, we were lucky to see massive improvements in both his coeliac and eczema-related symptoms.
Dr Peter Hogan, Head of Dermatology services at Westmead Children's Hospital, says that parents should look out for itchiness, dryness and redness on their child’s skin. 

“In most cases, eczema appears in babies under 12 months, the vast majority of those by 6 months of age,” he says. 

Dr Hogan recommends that if you have any concerns, you should see your family doctor. “They may then refer you to a dermatologist for assessment. It’s usually a simple straightforward diagnosis.” The dermatologist will discuss the diagnosis with you, and how to manage the condition. 

“Eczema is an inflammatory skin disease that results from an interaction between a person’s genetically predisposed skin, and environmental factors.” says Dr Hogan. “You can’t change your child’s genetic constitution, you can’t change their skin or the sensitivity of their immune system. So you need to deal with what your child reacts to. That might be prolonged bathing, soap on the skin, clothing such as synthetics or wool, sandpits, the environmental temperature – even sheepskin covers on mattresses, car seats or strollers.” 

Dr Hogan says all parents of babies with eczema need to be aware of what comes into contact with their child’s skin. And for a smaller subgroup - less than 20 per cent percent of cases - there’s another factor at play: “For some children, at the severe end of the eczema spectrum, their immune system overreacts. It might react to something in their mother’s diet, or to milk formula, or solid foods. Or it could be environmental allergens like pets, dust mites or pollen. But for most children with eczema, their immune system is not involved.” 

As for my son, he now has occasional flare ups when he’s stressed, but usually his skin is mostly clear. It’s a shame it took a while to diagnose our son’s skin condition, but hopefully in this Eczema Awareness Week our story helps other mums and dads spot the signs on their baby and seek medical advice. 

Around 30 per cent of children live with eczema every day. It’s most common in babies with a family history of disorders like asthma and hay fever. In recent years some studies have linked it to the amount of gut bacteria in newborns and the early use of antibiotics. While the majority of children grow out of the condition, a small percentage may experience severe eczema into adulthood. 
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