Essential Guide to Baby Eczema: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and More

What’s more, 90 percent of people with eczema experience it before age 5, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. (2) An estimated 60 percent of people with atopic dermatitis develop it before age 1.

This so-called baby eczema or infantile eczema usually persists through childhood and adolescence, and in some cases even into adulthood.

What Causes Eczema in Children?

Researchers don’t know exactly what causes baby eczema, but they believe it’s most likely due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Eczema is not contagious.

Infants are more likely to develop eczema if family members have a history of eczema, hay fever, or asthma.

While these conditions don't cause one another, infants are more likely to develop hay fever or asthma if they already have baby eczema.

Scientists believe eczema results from an immune-system dysfunction that affects the skin barrier and its ability to hold in moisture.

Eczema is a general term to describe a number of inflammatory skin conditions. Aside from atopic dermatitis, other types of eczema that commonly affect children include contact dermatitis, dyshidrotic eczema (foot-and-hand eczema), and seborrheic dermatitis, or scalp eczema (known as cradle cap in infants). (3)

Baby Eczema Risk Factors and the Environment

While baby eczema is the result of immune-system dysfunction, likely from a genetic predisposition, studies have found a number of risk factors.

  • Chinese
  • Bangladeshi
  • Black Caribbean
  • Of high socioeconomic status (5)
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The scientists, though, caution against intentionally exposing babies to direct sunlight until researchers better understand this complicated issue. (9)

Baby Eczema and Cradle Cap Symptoms

Baby eczema causes symptoms such as a red rash that makes the skin dry, itchy, and scaly. The rash can also have small bumps, which may ooze or weep fluid. Other symptoms may include:

  • Thickened skin
  • Redness and swelling
  • Darkened skin on the eyelids and around the eyes
  • Changes to the skin around the mouth, eyes, or ears (10)

Cradle cap causes symptoms not commonly seen in other types of infantile eczema, such as greasy yellow scales on the scalp that sometimes appear in a thick layer covering the entire top of the head. Over time, the scales become flaky and rub off.

Most babies do not appear to be bothered by cradle cap, though it sometimes itches. (11)

A baby with atopic dermatitis has an increased risk of other atopic (allergic) conditions, including asthma, hay fever, and food allergies. (12)

A Guide to the Different Types of Eczema

Atopic dermatitis is the most common type of eczema, but there are others to be aware of, too. Find photos of seborrheic dermatitis, contact dermatitis, and more.

Progression of Eczema in Infants and Children

Baby eczema is most prominent on the cheeks, forehead, and scalp of an infant within the first few months of life, and often tends to make the skin look more red and “weepy” than at other ages.

The eczema can appear on other parts of the body as well, including the diaper area.

When the infant begins to crawl, usually between 6 and 12 months, eczema will typically affect the elbows and knees, which rub on the ground. The eczema rash can become infected, resulting in a yellowish crust or tiny bumps of pus.

When the child is around age 2, eczema may begin to appear on the inside of the elbows and behind the knees, as well as on the wrists, ankles, and hands. It may also appear around the mouth and eyelids.

This eczema tends to be drier, scalier, and thicker (known as lichenification). (3)

What Are the Triggers of Eczema Symptoms?

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Eczema usually isn’t a persistent condition, but rather one marked by long symptom-free periods followed by flare-ups.

Various environmental factors may cause the immune system to respond as if the body has encountered a harmful substance, resulting in inflammation and worsening eczema symptoms.

These triggers may include a variety of allergens and irritants, such as:

  • Pet dander, pollen, mold, and dust mites
  • Allergenic foods (such as peanuts, soy, and eggs)
  • Clothing made of wool or synthetic fibers
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Scented products, such as laundry detergents, perfume, and air fresheners, especially ones that contain alcohol
  • Excessive heat or dryness
  • Dry winter air with little moisture
  • Skin infections
  • Sweating
  • Stress (13)

Additionally, drool can irritate a baby’s cheeks, chin, and neck. (3)

7 Common Myths About Eczema You Shouldn’t Believe

From the causes and triggers of atopic dermatitis, learn the truth about these common claims about the skin condition.

Treatment for Baby Eczema

There’s no cure for baby eczema, but the condition usually becomes less severe over time.

Treatment focuses on managing skin dryness to prevent flare-ups and on reducing skin inflammation.

Doctors recommend the following strategies to parents whose babies have eczema:

  • Avoid giving your baby long hot baths (use cool or lukewarm water instead) or rubbing your baby’s skin too much, especially with rough washcloths, loofahs, or towels.
  • Moisturize your baby’s skin frequently with fragrance- and dye-free ointments, creams, and lotions, especially right after a bath. (13)
  • Dress your baby in soft cotton clothing that “breathes.”
  • Avoid using scented products.
  • Keep your baby’s fingernails short to prevent scratching, which can damage the skin and lead to further inflammation and infection.
  • Remove irritants and known allergens from the household as much as possible.
  • Keep your baby cool to avoid excessive sweating, possibly by using cool compresses (a wet, cool washcloth), especially on irritated areas.
  • Consider using mittens on your small child’s hands if you need to leave the child alone for a short period of time, such as when you’re using the bathroom. This will help prevent the child from scratching their skin when you're out of sight. (14)

Your doctor may also recommend other eczema treatments for your child, including:

  • Topical corticosteroids
  • Antihistamines
  • Antibiotic, antiviral, or antifungal drugs for skin infections
  • Oral medication that suppresses the immune system
  • Topical calcineurin inhibitors, which are nonsteroidal drugs that control inflammation (15)
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