It is really important to keep skin well hydrated or it tends to snowball. The dry skin is broken skin, which allows water to escape, which further dries it, which leads to more evaporation.... Broken skin is more likely to become secondarily infected, which leads to more problems....
Itching dry skin also contributes to its worsening by further damaging the skin and allowing more water to evaporate, so try to keep fingers from scratching! (I know this is easier said than done.)
Eczema is not simply dry skin. It can cause significant distress to infants and children. It can impair sleep. It can distract from learning at school. Children with eczema have higher rates of anxiety and depression.
Eczema doesn't simply go away with good treatment: it can come and go even with the best treatment. It can therefore be a serious problem for families.
Your goal with dry skin is to hydrate it as much as possible to repair the skin barrier. We don't always think about skin as an organ (like the heart and liver), but it is. Its functions are to help keep us at a normal temperature, to keep stuff (such as bones, blood, and nerves) inside our bodies, and it helps to keep some things (such as germs) out of our bodies. When skin is excessively dry, there is inflammation and cracking. This keeps the skin from doing its job. We must try to get it back to normal so it can help keep the rest of our body healthy.
Eczema can be from many factors.
- There is a genetic component, so if a parent or sibling has eczema, it is common for other family members to have it.
- It is often worsened by environment, both cold dry air and excessive heat.
- Clothing can irritate some skin, depending on the fabric and the detergent left in the fibers.
- Any scented lotions or soaps can also irritate skin. (Don't be fooled that "baby" soaps and lotions are better for baby. I usually say to avoid any of the baby products because they are often scented. They make them to sell them, not to be better for baby's skin!)
- Allergies can exacerbate eczema.
- Saliva is very harsh on the skin. Drooling can cause problems around the mouth, chin, and chest. Thumb or finger suckers often have red, thick scaly areas on the preferred finger from the drying effects of saliva.
New eczema guidelines recently released downplay the need to alter foods to treat the skin. There are some kids who have true food allergies that manifest as atopic dermatitis (dry skin), but the large majority of kids do not. Restricting their diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies without any benefit. Talk to you doctor (and be sure they have read the newest on the topic) if you think a food might be exacerbating your child's dry skin.
My best tips for treating dry skin:
- Avoid exposures to soaps because they further damage skin. Non-soap cleansers that are fragrance free are much more mild on the skin.
- Soaking in bath water or in the shower can help hydrate the skin. After bathing the skin should be only briefly dried (remove large water droplets, but allow the skin to still be moist with water) and moisturizers (with or without steroids) must be applied immediately afterwards to prevent water from evaporating out of skin.
- Moisturizers should be hypoallergenic, fragrance free, and dye free. A good place to review if a product is good is on the National Eczema Association website. I really like the moisturizers with ceramide. This has been shown to help heal the skin barrier without steroids. Use moisturizers at least twice per day, more often as needed on the really dry spots.
- After the moisturizer soaks into the skin, cover extremely dry spots with petrolatum jelly.
- Steroids can be used for flares. Steroids are available in 7 different strength categories. The stronger the steroid, the less often it should be used. Over the counter hydrocortisone is a very mild steroid and can be used twice a day with mild flares. Stronger (prescription) steroids should be discussed with your doctor if the eczema is more severe, but they can be safe and effective when used appropriately.
- Bleach baths have been shown to help in moderate to severe eczema. Add 2 ounces of bleach to the bath water and soak the body (not the face) for 20 minutes a few times a week.
- Oral antihistamines, such as zyrtec, allegra, or claritin (or any of their generics) can help control the itch. I recommend the long acting antihistamines over the short acting ones, especially overnight, to avoid gaps in dosing leading to the itch/scratch cycle. Avoid topical antihistamines due to variable absorption from disrupted skin.
- Add water to the air during the dry months. If your air conditioner is running you shouldn't need (or want) to add humidity. If your heat is on, you might have an attached humidifier, which is great. You can also buy a room humidifier or vaporizer to add water to the air. When there's more water in the air, the skin will have less evaporation.
- Use wet water cloths on dry patches. This can help get a child through an itchy time with a cool compress. It also helps hydrate the skin. Since it might remove the moisturizer, re-apply moisturizer when the wet cloth is removed. Some kids benefit from wet wraps (see link). This is time intensive, but very effective, so worth trying for more severe eczema patches.
- If your child just can't stop itching, be sure nails are clipped to help avoid scratching. Sleeping with socks or mittens helps the inadvertent scratching during sleep. Many kids remove these, so sewing an old pair of socks onto the arms of long sleeve PJs can help. (Don't forget to put moisturizer on first!)
- If your child drools or sucks a finger, wipe the saliva off regularly and protect the skin with petrolatum jelly.
For more information, see the American Academy of Pediatrics clinical report on eczema management and the American Academy of Dermatology's Guidelines.