Eczema in children

Also known as atopic dermatitis

Eczema is a dry skin condition. You can usually control your child's eczema by using lots of moisturiser, a bath once a day and using steroids when your child's skin has active eczema.

This page focuses on eczema in children in particular. Read more about eczema in general.

Key points to remember about eczema in children

  1. Eczema is a dry, itchy skin condition.
  2. You can usually control your child's eczema by using lots of moisturiser, a bath once a day and using steroids when your child's skin has active eczema.
  3. Avoid things which irritate your child's skin, especially soap.
  4. Go to your family doctor as soon as possible if your child's eczema doesn't improve after treatment or becomes infected.

What is eczema?

  • Eczema is a dry skin condition that causes the skin to become red (inflamed) and itchy.
  • It usually begins early in childhood.

What causes eczema?

The skin of people with eczema has cracks in the barrier so is more sensitive to irritants (such as soap) and more at risk of infection.

A child is more likely to develop eczema if there is a family history of eczema, asthma or hayfever.

Food allergies do not cause eczema although children with eczema have a higher risk of developing food allergy.

How long can eczema last?

You can control eczema with treatment and by avoiding 'triggers'.

You can control eczema with treatment and by avoiding things which can trigger your child's eczema.

There is a good chance that your child's eczema will improve or disappear as they get older.

What puts my child at risk of getting eczema?

  • Eczema occurs in about 15–20% of children.
  • Children with eczema are more likely to develop allergies.
  • Eczema runs in families and often goes hand in hand with asthma and hay fever.

What are the signs and symptoms of eczema?

  • If your child has eczema, their skin feels dry and rough to touch, and it is itchy.
  • Their skin can become inflamed (looks red or darker in kids with dark skin), and may even get infected (pustules, yellow crusts), particularly with scratching.
  • In babies, the rash often involves their face.
  • In older children, the skin in the creases of their knees and elbows, around their neck and on their hands is often affected.
  • In some children, the skin over their entire body is affected.
  • At times your child's skin will look good and at other times it gets worse - this is part of eczema and not necessarily caused by bad care.
Baby with eczemaEczema in elbow crease

Image credit: DermNet NZ 

How can I manage my child's eczema?

You can easily manage most eczema at home but it needs care every day. There is no cure for eczema – just good management.

Keep skin moisturised

  • Don't use soap in the bath – you can use moisturisers (such as sorbolene) instead of soap.
  • Use moisturisers several times a day all over the body and face – moisturisers will help keep eczema away.
  • You can get moisturisers for eczema from your doctor or nurse prescriber.

Treat red itchy skin 

  • When the skin is red, itchy or rough (inflamed), apply steroid creams once a day just to the red itchy areas.
  • Steroid cream calms down the inflamed skin – "they put out the fires on the skin".
  • When the inflammation has gone away, you can stop using steroid creams, but keep using moisturisers every day.
  • If the steroid cream does not make the inflammation better in 2 weeks, see your doctor.
  • You can get steroid creams from your doctor or nurse prescriber.
  • Your doctor may recommend adding antiseptic to the bath, or antibiotic medicine.

Avoid triggers and treat infection

Removing foods from your child's diet does not usually help eczema and can be dangerous, leading to anaphylaxis.

Getting too hot from clothing or heating can make eczema worse – stay cool.

Soap and fragrances are the most common triggers of eczema. Only use skin care products designed for eczema. Many are available on prescription from your doctor or nurse prescriber.

Eczema is made worse by infection such as from:

Removing foods from your child's diet does not usually help eczema. Please talk with your doctor about this.

For information about managing and treating your child's eczema, check A management plan to help in caring for your child's eczema.

Are there likely to be any complications of eczema?

Baby with infected eczema
Image credit: DermNet NZ 

Eczema that isn't controlled leads to poor sleep which can have long-term effects on learning and behaviour. 

Children with eczema are more likely to get skin infections.

Eczema makes the skin dry and cracked and increases the chance of infection by bacteria and viruses (especially the cold sore virus). Infected eczema may be wet, crusted or painful. See your doctor for treatment.

If your child's eczema gets worse or becomes infected, you will need to take them to your doctor. Sometimes, a hospital stay may be necessary.

Eczema that isn't controlled leads to poor sleep which can have long-term effects on learning and behaviour.

Learn more

Atopic dermatitis (eczema) DermNet NZ 
Eczema Allergy New Zealand 

  Credits

Content courtesy of KidsHealth NZ which has been created by a partnership between the Paediatric Society of New Zealand (PSNZ) and the Starship Foundation, supported and funded by the Ministry of Health.

Credits: KidsHealth, NZ.