Fact sheet: Understanding Eczema

From the Centre for Community Child Health

Eczema is the third most common reason that Australian children are referred to paediatricians. In fact, Australian children have one of the highest incidences of eczema in the world. Childhood eczema isn't just a struggle for your affected child, but can also affect the quality of life of you and your family.

Young girl scratching left arm.

When does eczema occur?

More than half of all eczema sufferers show signs within their first 12 months of life and 20 per cent of children develop eczema before the age of five. However, eczema resolves for most affected children.

What are the symptoms?

Eczema commonly appears as a dry, red rash and moderate-to-severely itching skin. Babies with eczema will usually have a rash on their face, which also appears on the scalp, behind the ears, on the body, and on the arms and legs. In toddlers and older children, the rash often appears in the skin creases at the wrists, elbows, ankles and knees.

What causes eczema?

We don't know the exact cause of eczema, but we do know that there are triggers and other facts that can make your child more likely to be affected:

  • Family history: Eczema is most common in children who have a family history of eczema, asthma or hay fever.
  • Particular food: In some children, eczema can be triggered by dairy and wheat products, citrus fruits, eggs, nuts, seafood, chemical food additives or preservatives and colourings. However, it's not a good idea to change your child's diet to try to remove possible trigger foods without consulting a doctor or dietician.
  • Irritants: Common irritants include tobacco smoke, chemicals, soaps, detergents, fabrics, weather (hot and humid or cold and dry conditions) and air conditioning or overheating.
  • Allergens: For some eczema sufferers, triggers can include house dust mites, moulds, grasses, plant pollens, foods, pets and clothing, soaps, shampoos and washing powders, cosmetics and/or toiletries.

How to manage eczema

Stick to good quality, soap-free, specially developed hypoallergenic products and avoid anything perfumed. This applies to products including moisturisers, bath oils, body wash and cleansers.

Moisturiser is an essential part of eczema management. Keep your child's skin well moisturised; which might mean moisturising a number of times each day. Thicker creams and ointments are more effective than thin lotions.

Common Triggers

Heat is the most common trigger of eczema. When you are bathing with your child, make sure the water temperature is at or below 29 degrees. Check your hot water heater thermostat to see if you can turn it down. After bathing, pat your child dry, don't rub, and use a soft towel to avoid irritating the skin. Apply moisturiser straight away.

Clothing and materials

Avoid clothing and materials with:

  • rough, scratchy fibres
  • synthetic fabric
  • wool (including sheepskin)

You can also consider entirely removing rugs and carpets from the home, to reduce exposure not only to coarser fibres but also to the dust and mites that live in floor coverings.

Don't forget about the soap powder that you use to wash bed linen and towels. It's recommended to use non-biological soap powders and detergent, soap and fabric softeners.

More information