As many as 20 percent of all children suffer from the itchy rash called eczema. While some medical treatments are available, their success is limited, and their side effects can often be worse than the eczema itself. If your child has eczema, you’ve probably traveled this frustrating road before and may have asked your doctor, “What can I do at home to help?” The truth is that there is a lot you can do to treat and even prevent eczema.
Eczema is a catch-all term for a number of different skin problems; the most common type, atopic dermatitis, is an allergic condition. The rash appears because part of the immune system is overly sensitive to irritation. This situation begins an almost unbearable cycle in which hypersensitivity causes itching, which inspires scratching, which causes more irritation, which causes more itching, which inspires more scratching. If the allergic sensitivity can be prevented in the first place, eczema can be prevented.
Babies are born with sterile guts—they are entirely dependent on environmental exposure to acquire gastrointestinal (GI) flora, the bacteria that live in our GI tracts. These bacteria are important because they help teach your baby’s immune system to work properly during the first months of life. Through their interactions with mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT) and white blood cells, these bacteria actually change how the immune system works.
Breastfeeding helps to selectively nurture these beneficial bacteria; exclusive breastfeeding is one way you can assure your child a healthy supply of good GI flora. You can also make sure that you have a healthy balance of flora yourself. In a recent study, mothers consumed a probiotic (i.e., a supplement of live bacteria) containing Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG both before childbirth and until their babies were six months old. The incidence of eczema among their children was half that of babies in the control group, whose mothers received no probiotic.
If you are unable to breastfeed, probiotic-supplemented formula can offer a similar benefit. A study of infants with eczema concluded that formulas containing bifidobacteria and L. rhamnosus GG provided significant relief from symptoms after two months.
The bacteria that make up your GI flora are continuously replaced through environmental exposure. As your child grows, he or she will be exposed to other sources of bacteria, such as foods and pets. You may wish to include sources of healthy bacteria in your older child’s daily diet to continue to nurture his or her immune system. Foods containing these bacteria include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso, and tempeh.
YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT
A Spirulina Farm in South India
Certain types of dietary fats are very important to people who suffer from eczema. You may have heard the terms fatty acids, omega-3s, and omega-6s. Omega-3 and omega-6 are two “families” of fatty acids. The first acid in each family is called an essential fatty acid because it is “essential” that the first fatty acid in each family be obtained from the diet—the body alone cannot produce these acids. Then, in a series of chemical reactions, your body transforms the essential acid into each subsequent fatty acid in that family. Each of these reactions requires an enzyme, as well as nutrient cofactors that help the enzyme work
The essential fatty acid of the omega-6 family is linoleic acid. Most of us get plenty of linoleic acid in our diets; normally, our bodies can then convert linoleic into gamma- linolenic acid (GLA). Unfortunately, many people with eczema are unable to make that conversion well enough, and they end up with a lot of linoleic acid and not enough GLA. This is important because the body turns GLA into chemicals that calm inflammation. Research dating back to the 1930s has established GLA deficiency as a cause of eczema. In fact, in the 1940s, up until the introduction of steroids such as hydrocortisone, fatty acids were the primary treatment for eczema. .
Infant formulas contain no GLA. While breastmilk does contain GLA, the amount depends on how well the mother’s body is able to make the required chemical transformations and how much GLA-containing foods she consumes. Foods rich in GLA are spirulina, evening primrose oil (EPO), borage oil, and black currant seed oil. Though the amount of these substances required for noticeable lessening of itching and improved skin texture varies from person to person, a study of three daily adult dosages of EPO (2, 4, and 6 grams) and of two daily children’s dosages (1 and 2 grams) showed highly significant and beneficial effects.
Your body needs adequate amounts of certain nutrients for those fatty-acid-converting enzymes to work; most people with eczema need zinc, magnesium, and vitamin B6. Many studies have noted that children with eczema tend to be deficient in zinc; some have speculated that GLA supplementation works for some children by compensating for this deficiency.
If your child has developed an allergy to foods or other environmental substances, such as pollen, detergent, or dust mites, eczema can flare up when he or she is exposed to the offending substance. Take the following simple steps to avoid allergens and thus the chance of triggering a flare-up.
- Use soaps, detergents, and moisturizers that are free of perfumes and dyes.
- Avoid allergenic foods. The most common offenders are milk, eggs, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, and wheat, but other foods may be bothersome for your child. Start keeping a food diary to keep track.
- Keep your child’s bedroom well vacuumed and dusted to minimize exposure to dust mites.
- Wash bed linens, stuffed animals, and window coverings weekly in hot water.
- Keep the humidity level in your home below 50 percent. Mold and dust mites thrive at higher humidities.
- Avoid outdoor activities when pollen and spore counts are high.
- Avoid exposure to smoke.
- Apply a Cardiospermum cream, such as Florasone, as an alternative to steroidal creams in breaking the itching and scratching cycle.
- Choose clothing and linens made of soft, natural fibers; coarsely woven materials irritate skin. Clothing tags are also frequently scratchy; you might consider removing them.
- Choose clothing that covers as much of the irritated area as possible without being too hot, so that your child has less chance of breaking the skin by scratching.
- In addition to allergens, skin irritation can cause the rash and itch of eczema to worsen. Dryness alone can cause skin to itch; keeping skin moist is a big part of eczema care.
- Baths should be only as warm as necessary to prevent chilling, and should be kept to a minimum to prevent stripping the skin of its protective oils.
- Use a cleanser, soap, or baby wash only when it is truly necessary. After bathing, pat dry and immediately apply a moisturizer.
- Sudden changes in temperature or humidity can make eczema worse, as can stress, sweating, and illness.
Infection is a common complication of eczema—scratching breaks the skin barrier, which allows bacteria to enter more easily. Minimize the risk of infection during outbreaks of eczema by the following methods
- Keep your child’s fingernails clean and trimmed short.
- Keep your child occupied to lessen his or her focus on the itching.
- Teach your child to press on itchy areas or to apply clean, cool compresses instead of scratching.
- Colloidal oatmeal baths may help soothe the itch. When oats are ground to a very fine powder and suspended in water, they give the water a smooth, milky texture that coats and softens skin. You can buy oatmeal bath products at your grocery store, or you can prepare your own at home. To make your own, grind one cup of oatmeal in your blender or coffee grinder until it is a fine powder, then add it to a lukewarm bath. The powder should be fine enough that it evenly disperses in the water and does not sink to the bottom of the tub. Soak in the bath for about 10 minutes, then pat dry. When symptoms are severe, you may want to repeat the bath two or three times a day.
HERBS AND HOMEOPATHY
Stinging Nettle Soup
Herbs and homeopathic remedies can be very useful in controlling the symptoms of an eczema outbreak. Some herbs and remedies may not be appropriate for certain individuals, and in some instances they can actually make symptoms worse—speak with your natural health professional before taking any product. Ask your herbalist or homeopath if one of these might be right for your child.
- Aloe vera—apply topically to soothe and moisturize skin. Take orally to balance immune function. Use caution in giving oral aloe to young children or anyone with heart, kidney, or gastrointestinal disorders.
- Burdock—apply topically for skin irritations.
- Calendula—apply topically to soothe skin.
- Chamomile—apply topically or drink as a tea to ease discomfort. Use caution if your child is allergic to ragweed, asters, chrysanthemums, or echinacea.
- Goldenrod—apply topically to skin wounds.
- Nettle—apply topically or take orally as a tea, dry herb, tincture, or extract. Relieves pain and inflammation.
- Cardiospermum—for skin and respiratory allergies
- Rhus toxicodendron—for contact allergies
- Sulfur—for skin that is red, itchy, irritated, and worsens with scratching; use caution with young children.
- Urtica urens—for large rashes that itch intensely
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Meredith, Sheena. The Natural Way: Eczema—A Comprehensive Guide to Gentle, Safe and Effective Treatment. Element Books, 1994.
Pitchford, Paul. Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition, 3rd ed. North Atlantic Books, 2002.
Christine Climer is a registered nurse with experience in pulmonary disease, pediatrics, home health and hospice services. Also trained in early childhood education, she has served as the executive director and child care nurse for an early childhood health promotion organization. She lives with her husband and three children (including a set of twins) in Texas and enjoys researching health issues and gardening.