Few things are as distressing as watching your child itch and scratch. Childhood eczema can cause unbearable irritation, the constant scratching leaving skin red, raw and bleeding and interfering with sleep. The misery of eczema can affect a child’s mental health as well as their confidence.
This disease, affecting at least one in five children in the UK, is highlighted during National Eczema Week. The majority of eczema cases develop before a child reaches five years old.
To find out more about why childhood eczema occurs and how you can help your child, read on.
You’re probably familiar with the itchy, raised patches of skin caused by eczema. Also known as dermatitis, several different types of eczema exist, with symptoms differing from child to child. Childhood eczema often develops on the face and scalp, elbows, knees and neck, and in any area where the skin creases. When it affects the scalp it’s known as cradle cap.
Eczema occurs when the protective barrier in the outer surface of the skin doesn’t work as well as it should. Healthy skin contains fats and oils keeping skin cells hydrated and preventing harmful substances from entering. In eczema, tiny gaps in the skin allow irritants to pass through and water to be lost.
When something external to your child’s body is allowed access through the skin it can switch on the immune system inappropriately, causing an allergic reaction and meaning skins cells don’t behave as they should. Children may develop eczema because of substances coming into contact with their skin such as detergent, because of an allergy to pets, or after eating certain foods. It’s often worse during hot weather and when the air is dry. Eczema can flare up during a stressful situation, and it’s more common in families who suffer from hay fever or asthma.
Conventionally, eczema is usually treated by topical corticosteroid creams. These work by suppressing your child’s immune response and dampening down inflammation. Some oral medications may be prescribed to suppress the immune system, while moisturising creams and ointments act as skin barriers.
However, not only do many of these treatments come with side effects but they don’t address the question of why the eczema is occurring, simply suppressing its symptoms.
Digging down a little deeper to look at the cause of eczema, the first port of call is the gut. Because three-quarters of your child’s immune system is found in their gut, it’s not surprising any imbalances there make themself felt in immune system issues like allergies and production of excessive inflammation, both at the heart of eczema.
The microbiome is the collection of bacteria living in the gut. Your child inherits their microbiome from you, during birth, from your milk if they’re breastfed, and picked up from both parents’ skin in early life. So if your microbiome is out of shape, this will affect how healthy your child’s microbiome is, too.
Researchers discovered the number and types of bacteria in the digestive tracts of babies suffering from eczema were significantly different to those of unaffected babies. The bacteria living on their skin was different, too, with certain species missing and particular dominant species increasing during skin flare-ups. It’s thought specific types of bacteria living on the skin protect against inflammation while others encourage it.
Reactions to dairy products are often implicated in eczema. Other common food triggers include gluten grains, soya and eggs. Food intolerances develop because the lining of the digestive system becomes too leaky, allowing undigested particles of food to access the bloodstream, putting the immune system on high alert.
Your child’s skin needs certain nutrients to repair itself. One type of fat important for skin health and controlling inflammation is omega 3, found in oily fish, seeds and nuts, and breast milk. An imbalance in essential fats is related to excessive inflammation. It’s thought some children don’t metabolise these fats very well.
Skin also needs vitamin A, zinc, selenium, vitamin C and vitamin D – low levels of this nutrient have been associated with childhood eczema.
Often, children will seem to ‘grow out’ of eczema, but if the underlying causes of the inflammation and immune system problems are not addressed, other health issues sharing these common causes may develop over time.
Only by discovering the causes of health conditions can they be put right, and eczema is no exception. Because the specific root causes and triggers of your child’s eczema will be unique to them, only by a thorough assessment of their symptoms, health history and nutritional status will a permanent solution be found. Functional testing can quickly detect food intolerances and assess your child’s gut health.
A combination of dietary, supplement and lifestyle measures will support your child’s immune system and reduce inflammation while helping their skin to naturally repair itself.
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