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Health answers: Why do babies often get eczema?

Q. Why do babies often get eczema?

A. Eczema — a chronic case of itchy, red, swollen, dry, or broken skin — is a common problem in infants and in young children. “Babies often get eczema because their skin barrier is still forming over the first year,” says Lynda Schneider, director of the allergy program at Boston Children’s Hospital. Their skin is thinner and has a different mix of protein, fat, and water than mature skin. It absorbs and loses water quickly, she says, and “the water loss can result in a defect in the skin barrier.”

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While delicate skin is a problem common to all babies, genetic differences seem to make some more susceptible to persistent eczema. Atopic dermatitis, the most common form of eczema in babies, is an allergic condition often accompanied by other kinds of allergies, though Schneider notes that food allergy is not usually a trigger of eczema. Babies from families with allergies and eczema are more likely to get the condition, and recent research has also tied atopic dermatitis to genetic differences in proteins found in the skin.

To treat eczema in infants, avoid irritating cleansers or fabrics, and “soak and seal” the skin by applying a thick layer of an ointment or cream directly after a bath. In persistent cases, a topical steroid can help. Schneider says there is some evidence that certain factors may lower the risk of eczema — such as breast-feeding, using moisturizers, and giving babies dietary supplements such as probiotics — but, so far, research on preventing eczema is inconclusive.

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