Eczema (also known as dermatitis) is a common problem affecting many people, especially children. The main symptoms are red, swollen, scaly and itchy skin. Sometimes the skin is so inflamed that it weeps.
There are several different types of eczema. The most common type is called atopic dermatitis.
Although all parts of the body can be affected, eczema is most often found in areas known as ‘flexures’ — where skin folds back on itself — such as the back of the knees, front of the elbows and behind the ears. In small children it often occurs on the face and scalp.
The exact cause of eczema is not fully understood, but it is thought to be due to a combination of factors, including inheriting certain genes, having an overactive immune system and being exposed to certain substances in the environment. In some cases, eczema is a type of allergic reaction, and it often occurs in people who have asthma or suffer from hayfever. Several people in the same family may have similar problems. In other people there is no direct relationship to causative factors.
Many things can cause eczema to flare up. These can include extremes of temperature and irritation from products such as wool, synthetic clothing, soaps and strong detergents.
Sometimes an allergy to certain foods, for example cows’ milk, is blamed for eczema. However, food allergy is not thought to be a direct cause of eczema, although it can aggravate it, particularly in young children. In the first few years of life most children will grow out of the food allergies that aggravate their eczema.
Your doctor can help you to identify the triggers of your, or your child’s, eczema that you should try to avoid. It is important that you speak to your doctor before trying to eliminate certain foods from your child’s diet to see if that helps.
One of the biggest problems with eczema is infection of the affected skin. This usually follows scratching the itchy skin, which is hard to stop but can result in broken areas of the skin becoming infected. Antihistamine tablets or syrup may help prevent the itch. Sometimes children need to sleep with their hands bandaged to stop them scratching their skin.
Last Reviewed: 14 April 2010