Little kids and rashes go together like peanut butter and jelly. Not in the appetizing sense, obviously, but in the way that you really can’t have one without the other.
From pimply heat rashes and diaper rashes to splotchy viral rashes and full-body hives, almost no kid makes it through childhood without something itchy and spotty popping up.
But if your toddler has the same rash that comes and goes or a rash that’s chronic, you probably shouldn’t shrug it off as something that will disappear on its own.
A skin condition known as eczema, or atopic dermatitis, is pretty common in toddler-age children for a variety of reasons. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, at least 1 in every 10 kids has this condition.
Although eczema isn’t harmful on its own, it can lead to a lot of itching, irritation, and discomfort.
In some people, eczema just happens — but in others, it can be a sign of skin allergies, systemic allergies, or an overactive immune system. It’s usually worth investigating.
Here’s what you need to know about how eczema affects toddlers and what you can do to help.
Eczema is a chronic inflammatory skin condition that’s usually caused by a weakening in the skin’s protective barrier. Because the skin is more sensitive to triggers like allergens, extreme heat, illness, or stress, it responds with inflammation in the form of red, itchy, patch-like rashes.
Some people are genetically more likely to have extreme allergic responses to irritants on their skin. This may cause other childhood allergies, too, like:
- seasonal pollen allergies
- pet allergies
- food allergies
With the right prevention and treatment approaches, you can get your child’s eczema under control. Still, they’ll probably have occasional flare-ups, or periods when the eczema returns and worsens before clearing up again.
Many toddlers outgrow eczema, while others continue to experience flare-ups throughout their childhood — and sometimes even into adulthood.
An eczema rash can look different from person to person, depending on what caused it and where the rash is located. In general, the appearance of eczema may include:
- dry, red patches of skin
- small red bumps that are clustered together
- yellow, crusty patches of skin
- scaly patches that may look raised
- weeping rashes or pus-filled bumps
Eczema rashes are typically very itchy, so it’s important to make sure your child doesn’t scratch them. Scratching could create tears or openings in the skin, which can lead to infection.
It helps to keep your child’s fingernails trimmed and smooth to reduce injury to the skin if they do scratch. You may even consider putting gloves on them at night to prevent them from scratching while they sleep.
When to schedule a medical appointment
If this isn’t your toddler’s first go-round with eczema, you may not need to call your doctor. But if the eczema is new or looks different than before, it’s OK to call and get another set of eyes on your child’s rash. There may be other medications or treatments your child’s doctor can prescribe to help them feel better, too.
Call your doctor if:
- You think your child’s eczema rash is infected, which may look crusty or scabbed, or if it’s weeping or oozing.
- The rash is cracked or bleeding.
- Your child is having trouble sleeping because of eczema discomfort.
- Your child has never had symptoms of eczema before.
- Your child has a fever or seems to not be feeling well.
- None of your usual remedies for your child’s eczema are working.
Eczema can appear in any area where your child has come into contact with one of their triggers.
For example, if they have a grass allergy and rolled around in the backyard, they might have rashes anywhere there was exposed skin.
A child could get eczema around the outside of their mouth after eating acidic foods, like pineapple, or in the folds of their skin if they were sweating.
If your child had eczema as a baby, you might think you’re a pro at identifying it. However, the symptoms of eczema in toddlers are actually different from the symptoms in babies. As kids get older, the location of their rashes can change.
Babies are prone to rashes on their faces and heads — remember cradle cap? That’s a kind of eczema! Toddlers and older kids are more likely to get eczema in the following areas:
- creases of their elbows
- back of their knees
- around their mouth
- wrists and ankles
Before you panic that your child will have lifelong bouts of itchy rashes, it’s important to remember that some kids are just prone to eczema because of their unique skin makeup. And even that’s not always fixed or permanent.
There’s no way to predict what will happen in the future, but lots of kids outgrow their eczema when they reach their preschool years.
Your child is more likely to have eczema if they also have:
- a family history of eczema
Food allergies don’t cause eczema, but they are related.
For the most part, though, environmental triggers are the biggest cause of eczema flares. Common triggers include:
- excessive heat or sweating
- environmental allergens like pollen, dust, and pet dander
- stress and viral infections
- weather (cold, dry air — eczema is often worse in winter)
- drool from teething
- soaps and laundry detergents
- certain synthetic fabrics, like wool and polyester
- cigarette smoke
- certain fragrances
Although eczema is bothersome and often hard to treat, you can take some steps to get your toddler’s eczema under control.
Because eczema happens when the skin barrier that doesn’t retain enough moisture, it’s important to boost the moisture level of your child’s skin as much as possible.
Frequent moisturizing with a protective ointment or cream, especially after bathing, is key to preventing the moisture loss that leads to the breakdown of the skin barrier.
Your child’s doctor may even suggest sealing in that moisture with a technique called wet wrapping.
In general, bathing too often can cause your child’s skin to become dry, but you can’t stop bathing them.
In addition to using eczema-friendly products, your doctor may recommend a strategy called bleach bathing. Don’t worry, it’s not as intense as it sounds!
A diluted bleach bath can prevent flare-ups and manage rashes that are beginning to become infected or already are infected.
Using OTC treatments
Oral and topical antihistamines can decrease itching and are available over the counter (OTC) at most pharmacies. Topical hydrocortisone is available OTC as well, but in a lower dosage than the prescription version.
Getting prescription treatments
If home remedies and OTC treatments aren’t working well for your child, their doctor may start prescribing topical treatments and other medications. These may include:
- prescription-strength corticosteroids
- immunosuppressants or biologics, which help control overactive immune responses
- phototherapy, which can reduce itching and inflammation
This isn’t a treatment so much as a prevention strategy, but knowing your child’s triggers and avoiding them will be hugely important in cutting down on flare-ups.
The following will go a long way toward preventing rashes:
- avoiding environmental triggers
- dressing your child in lightweight cotton clothing
- keeping their skin moist rather than dry
- patting their skin dry after bathing
- keeping their sleeping area cool (but not too cold or dry)
Home remedies for toddler eczema
At any point in your child’s eczema flare — whether you’ve seen a pediatrician or not — you can use some basic home remedies to manage their rashes.
Here some home remedies you can try:
- Use a “soak and seal” or wet wrapping. After bathing, when the skin is still damp, apply moisturizer to the affected area, then wrap with a wet towel or cloth to lock in moisture.
- Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize. Thick oil- or petroleum-based ointments, like Vaseline and Aquaphor, retain moisture better than standard lotions.
- Give them antihistamines. Antihistamines, like Benadryl, can reduce itching and inflammation. If your child has never taken Benadryl before, make sure to check the proper dosage for your child’s age and weight.
- Use natural moisturizers. Turn to coconut oil for a thick, moisture-retaining ointment. It’s safe for most babies unless they have a coconut allergy.
- Limit full baths. Try sponge baths instead of long bath times every day. Avoid bubble baths with irritating ingredients and stick to non-soap cleansers or colloidal oatmeal baths.
Eczema can be a frustrating skin condition in toddlers but it’s totally common.
Your child’s genetics can make them extra sensitive to exposure to their unique triggers and leave them with red, itchy, patchy rashes.
Your toddler might outgrow their eczema over time, but even if they don’t, there are lots of ways you can prevent, treat, and manage their symptoms. These range from home remedies to OTC medications to prescription medications.