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There are many different types of eczema, but atopic eczema is by far the most common. This form of eczema usually starts in childhood, most commonly in the first year, and around 10% of all children will develop eczema before the age of five. Fortunately, about two thirds of children with eczema grow out of it by the time they are seven, and three quarters do so by the time they are 16. However, eczema can persist into adulthood and even children who grow out of it can continue to have ‘sensitive’ skin as adults.

In babies, eczema can affect any part of the face or body, and often appears as oval-shaped patches of pink or red, dry, rough skin which are intensely itchy and may weep or bleed when scratched, often leading to frustration, sleep disturbance and infection of the skin. In older children, eczema most commonly affects the creases on the inside of the elbows and the backs of the knees. There may also be patches of eczema elsewhere on the body.

The tendency to develop eczema is genetic, and is linked to asthma and hayfever, but the disease itself is usually precipitated by environmental influences. The environment we live in and the stressors we are exposed to have changed a great deal in recent years, and this has caused more and more children to develop the condition.

Factors which can adversely affect the development of the immune system in early childhood, such as excessive use of antibacterial cleaning products, frequent courses of antibiotics, and stress, may increase the risk of developing eczema. Other triggering factors include anxiety, infection, allergies, pollution, household chemicals, and poor diet.

Conventional treatment of eczema includes emollient creams to reduce skin dryness, topical steroids to reduce itching and inflammation, and antibiotics for infection. While steroid creams are often quite effective in the short term, they only suppress the symptoms and can lead to thinning of the skin when used long term. Frequent or inappropriate use of antibiotics damages the immune system and causes microbial imbalance, which can ultimately make matters worse. Fortunately there are some very effective, natural and safe ways to help keep eczema under control.

It is advisable to avoid cow’s milk and other dairy products, which often exacerbate the condition, and use  rice or goat’s milk products instead. Minimise contact with pets and other animals, and ensure the home is kept as dust-free as possible. Change bedclothes regularly and wash at 60 degrees to kill dust mites and other harmful micro-organisms.

Avoid clothes made from wool and synthetic fibres, and choose cotton clothes and bed-linen instead. Avoid biological washing powders and use a chemical free washing powder such as Fairy Non-Bio or Ecover. Do not use any fabric softeners, which tend to leave chemical residues on clothes.

Keep the skin clean to help reduce the risk of infection, and use emollient creams regularly to keep the skin moist. Make sure bath water is not too hot and do not use any soap, bubble bath or shampoo. Instead, fill a muslin bag (or similar) with oatmeal and place under the hot tap while running the bath, and then add cold water until bath is the appropriate temperature. A dessertspoonful of baking soda added the bath helps to reduce itching.

Natural treatment of eczema is completely safe and generally very effective. Herbs such as Chinese skullcap  reduce allergic responses, and others such as liquorice reduce inflammation of the skin. Herbs such as  heartsease and chickweed help to reduce itching.

Useful supplements include evening primrose oil, vitamin E and zinc, which are important for skin repair. If you or your child suffers from eczema, a qualified medical herbalist can provide an individually tailored herbal prescription together with natural creams and helpful advice about diet and nutritional supplements.

For more information about natural treatment for eczema or to make an appointment for a private consultation telephone 058 53200 or 087 934 5910.

By Marie Reilly
MSc, MNIMH, DipCoun.