Monday, July 8, 2013

This clueless mother's guide to eczema

Summer has arrived Chez Chittenden. It's brought many joys with it like park visits, painted toenails and Pimms. But the infernal heat has caused its problems too. Fur balls. Frizzy hair. A collective celtic pallor that makes us feel like we face the world with the grace and dignity of a family of goths in a sauna. Also the heat can sometimes bring out Samuel's eczema.

Samuel's eczema first appeared when he had just turned three months' old. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, his face and shoulders were covered in dry, itchy red patches. He clawed and clawed at them, which made it worse. If I took my eye off him for a moment, he'd scratch a chunk out of his face. And, as with every issue that arises as a new mum, I panicked. Would he suffer like this forever? How could I stop him scratching? Was it something I'd done or eaten? Was it the cat? If it was the cat would we have to get rid of the cat?

The GP diagnosed eczema straight away. A mild case, she said, and gave us some emollient cream and steroid cream. Sorted, I thought, and off we went and applied the creams as directed on the prescriptions. But while they helped to ease the itching a little, they didn't get rid of the dry red patches all together. Samuel was still suffering and I was still a bit stumped. Neither me or James ever had eczema as children so we didn't really know what to do for the best. 

Luckily, the health visitor referred us to an eczema education programme for parents run by a dermatological nurse from St Thomas'. I went along a few weeks' ago and the tips I picked up were brilliant. We saw results with Samuel pretty much straight away. And, even better, we didn't have to pack the cat off with a little suitcase and a one-way ticket to Grannyville. Here's a little of what I learned:

1. Don't blame the cat - but make sure she remains lonely
There are a bunch of things that trigger eczema. Heat, pollen, swimming, detergents,
clothing labels and seams, dust mites, illness and cosmetics. Pet fur can be a trigger too, but if you had the pet before the baby came along, their skin is probably used to its fur by now. Just don't get another cat, or any other furry critter.

2. Stickybeaks should complain that your child is too cold or too warm
Since heat makes eczema worse, you should always aim to keep your child cool. That means keeping their room between 16 and 18 degrees (which is freezing) and making sure they wear one layer of clothing less than you, as opposed to the general rule of thumb which says babies should wear one layer more than you. If old ladies tell you that your baby is too cold then that means you're on the right track. Confusingly, since pollen also causes eczema, you should also make sure your child is well covered-up on sunny days with high pollen levels. Go for long armed and long legged clothes, but made from light, natural fabrics. That might lead to a few more moans from Aunty Doris.

3. Your family will never, ever smell nice
Scented cosmetics such as soap or perfume can kick eczema off, so that means binning the Chanel Mademoiselle and going for a more 'natural' scent. And while you're busy smelling of, well, you, baby is busy smelling like a Glaxo-Smith-Klein lab. Emollients are great but I'm yet to find a non-medical smelling one on prescription.

4. You can never over-cream your child
Prescription emollients usually come in those industrial-looking 500g pumps. Apparently, in order to keep your baby's skin protected from all those eczema-causing nasties, you should be getting through one of these pumps every fortnight. Really slavering it on and then letting it sink in, several times a day. This came as a shocker to me because without any proper guidelines from the GP I'd just been putting a thin layer on a couple of times a day and getting through a pump every couple of months. We've seen a whopping improvement to his skin since we got more liberal with the emollient. I also discovered that if you are using steroid creams too, these are most effective when applied after the emollient has sunk in - ideally after 20 minutes. Put steroids on before, and they will be diluted by the emollient. Basically, when you have an eczema baby, expect to have creams coming out of your ears and expect a thin oily film over all of your worldly possessions.

5. Cover up those paws
One of the best ways to stop baby scratching when they sleep is investing in a pair of Scratch Sleeves. They go on like a cardigan, cover up any sharp little nails and look like tiny baby oven gloves. But best of all, baby can't get out of them no matter how much they wriggle. They're definitely one of our best buys.

All of these tips helped with Samuel's eczema, but every baby is different so they might not work for everyone. The main message that I took away from the workshop was that unless you put your baby in a plastic bubble, you can never eliminate all the trigger factors for eczema, but so long as you're aware of what they are and you're prepared, you can minimise them. And you can enjoy a hot summer with a baby and a cat.

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