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Understanding Your Child’s Eczema

Eczema (eg-zuh-MUH) is the name for a group of conditions that cause the skin to become red, itchy and inflamed.

There are eight types of eczema. Atopic dermatitis, contact dermatitis and seborrheic dermatitis, also known as “cradle cap,” are the most common types that affect children. Eczema, especially atopic dermatitis, often appears in the first six months to 5 years of a child’s life.

Eczema is not contagious. You can’t “catch it” from someone else.

For most types of eczema, managing flares comes down to these basics:

  • Know your child’s particular triggers to avoid exposure
  • Implement a daily bathing and moisturizing routine to protect skin and lock in moisture
  • Use OTC and prescription medication consistently and as prescribed to curb symptoms

There is no cure for eczema but there are treatments and more are coming. These include over-the-counter (OTC) remedies, prescription topical medications, phototherapy, and immunosuppressants.

Eczema, especially atopic dermatitis (AD), may look and act very differently as your child gets older. It’s important to understand which type of eczema they may have and also their symptoms and triggers so that you can better treat and manage it as they grow and change. The only way to be sure what type of eczema your child has is to make an appointment with your doctor.

Get the info you need to manage your child's eczema

NEA has the tools to help you help your child in the classroom, at home and beyond

  • Learn what you can do to help your child manage eczema
  • Understand the importance of communicating with your child’s teachers, so they can help your child better cope in the classroom
  • Get tools and tips to manage your child’s “itch-scratch cycle” so that your entire family gets more restful sleep
  • Download NEA’s “Eczema School Care Kit” so that your child has everything they need while at school

Why did my child develop eczema?

The exact cause of eczema is unknown. Researchers do know that children who develop eczema do so because of a combination of genes and environmental triggers. When something outside the body “switches on” the immune system, skin cells don’t behave as they should causing flare ups.

We also know that children who come from families with a history of atopic dermatitis, asthma, or hay fever (known as the atopic triad) are more likely to develop atopic dermatitis.

Is eczema different for infants or toddlers, then it is for older children?

Eczema looks and acts differently in infants and toddlers than it does in older children. The location and appearance of eczema changes as they grow, so it’s important to know what to look for during every stage of your infant or toddler’s life.

Infants (first 6 months)

Eczema usually appears on the face, cheeks, chin, forehead and scalp. It can also spread to other areas of the body, but not usually in the diaper area, where moisture protects the skin. The skin at this stage also tends to look more red and “weepy.”

Babies (6-12 months)

At this stage, eczema often appears on your baby’s elbows and knees — places that are easy to scratch or rub as they’re crawling. If the eczema rash becomes infected, it may form a yellow crust, or very small, “pus bumps” on the skin.

Toddlers (2-5 years)

Atopic dermatitis frequently affects the face in children. It can appear as red patches with small bumps as shown here.

Around the age of two, your toddler’s eczema is more likely to appear in the creases of the elbows and knees, or on their wrists, ankles and hands. It may also appear on the skin around your toddler’s mouth and the eyelids. Your toddler’s skin may start to look dry and scaly at this stage and become thick with deeper lines — this is called “lichenification.”

Children (5 years+)

Eczema usually appears in the folds of the elbows and/or knees. Sometimes, it’s only on a child’s hands — at least 70% of people have had hand eczema at some time in their life. Redness and itchy patches behind your child’s ears, on their feet or scalp, may also be a sign of atopic dermatitis. But these could also be symptoms of another condition, like seborrheic dermatitis, which can exist with eczema.

What triggers my child’s eczema or causes it to get worse?

Some of the most common eczema triggers include:

  • Dry skin
  • Irritants
  • Heat and sweating
  • Infection
  • Allergens such as pet dander, pollen or dust

Your child’s eczema may be worse in the winter when the air is dry. Saliva from drooling can also cause irritation on your baby’s cheeks, chin and neck.

The best way to manage your child’s eczema is by getting to know their symptoms and triggers so that you can help keep it under control.

Learn more about common eczema triggers.

How to treat and manage your child’s eczema symptoms


Bathing and moisturizing

pic of eczema atopic dermatitis severe rash due to scratching

A severe case of atopic dermatitis in a young child. Eczema is made worse by scratching as shown here.

It is important to have a regular schedule with eczema care that includes bathing with a gentle cleanser and moisturizing to lock water into the skin. Moisturized skin helps control flares by combatting dryness and keeping out irritants and allergens.

Bathe your child daily, using lukewarm — not hot — water for five to 10 minutes. If possible, bathe them at night before bedtime, when the skin is more likely to lock in moisture. Use a gentle cleanser recommended for sensitive skin. Avoid rubbing or scrubbing the affected skin with a wash cloth or loofah.

After bathing, pat the skin lightly with a towel leaving it slightly damp. Water softens the skin and enables it to better absorb medication and moisturizer. Apply a thin coat of any topical medication prescribed by your doctor to affected areas of the skin only.

Liberally apply a moisturizer all over the body (not just the areas with eczema) to lock in moisture. Use an ointment or a cream rather than a lotion. Apply it with your palms, stroking lightly in a downward direction. Wait a few minutes to let the moisturizer absorb into the skin before dressing.

Don’t limit moisturizing to bath time. Slather it on throughout the day whenever your child’s skin starts to itch or feel dry.

Learn more about moisturizing and bathing to help manage your child’s eczema symptoms.


Wet wrap therapy

During particularly intense flare-ups with severe itch or pain, wet wrap therapy can rehydrate and calm the skin and boost the effectiveness of topical medications.

Wet wraps are best done in the evening after bathing, moisturizing and applying medication.

Get detailed instructions on how to do wet wrap therapy on your child.


Over-the-counter Remedies

Your doctor may recommend treatments available for purchase at your local drug store, including gentle cleansers, mild corticosteroids, moisturizers, petroleum jelly, mineral oil or tar-based products. There are many OTC products available that may help prevent and control eczema symptoms in your child.

Visit our directory of over-the-counter products that have received the National Eczema Association Seal of Acceptance™ to find a treatment that works for your child.


Prescription treatments

Topical medications

Topical medications are applied to the skin. There are four forms of prescription topicals approved to manage symptoms of eczema.

Learn more about topical treatments.


Also known as light therapy, phototherapy exposes the skin to a special type of light called ultraviolet B (UVB) using a walk-in machine.

Learn more about phototherapy.

Immunosuppressant medications

Used for moderate to severe cases of eczema, immunosuppressants work by controlling or suppressing, the immune system. Immunosuppressants prescribed “off-label” meaning that the FDA has not approved them for use with eczema. However, they are commonly used by doctors to treat difficult eczema cases.

Learn more about immunosuppressant medications.


Complementary and alternative treatments

There are several natural treatments that have been shown to be effective controlling eczema symptoms. Many of these studies looked the effects on adults, so be sure to consult with your child’s doctor prior to starting any natural treatments for eczema.

Learn more about complementary and alternative treatments for eczema.

What’s the difference between eczema and atopic dermatitis in children?

Atopic dermatitis is one of the most common types of eczema, affecting 13% of all children under the age of 18 in the United States.

Both atopic dermatitis and other forms of eczema are conditions that infants, toddlers,  and older children can develop. Symptoms include skin redness and itch. Atopic dermatitis is considered a chronic, inflammatory condition that is a result of genes and environmental triggers and may last into the child’s teenage years and beyond.