These days, eczema is at least twice as common as it was 30 years ago. At any given time, five to 10 percent of children in America have eczema—a skin condition marked by dry, itchy patches that sometimes become raw and bleed. The problem typically surfaces at about two to three months of age, with 85 percent of children experiencing eczema before age five. Childhood eczema can resolve itself in time, though up to 40 percent of cases continue into adulthood.
What Causes Eczema?
While doctors have effective treatments for eczema, we still have a lot to learn about what causes it. Genetics play a definite role: if one parent has eczema, the chance of his/her child having it is 60 percent. If both parents suffer, that chance jumps to 80 percent. Eczema affects both sexes equally and crosses ethnic and racial lines. We also know it is linked to other allergic diseases—asthma and allergic rhinitis (or hay-fever). In fact, 50 to 80 percent of children with eczema go on to have other allergic conditions.
The exact cause of eczema is most likely a complex interplay of genetics, the immune system, and numerous environmental factors. Dry winter air sets off eczema in some, while in others it is the sweat that accompanies hot, humid air. Fibers such as wool and synthetics can begin the irritation that snowballs into eczema, as can certain soaps, detergents, fragrances, perfumes, vigorous toweling, airborne particles, stress, and in some cases even food.
What is clear is that eczema-prone skin is different from other skin types—it starts out drier and, when triggered, begins to itch. Scratching further changes the skin and ultimately the thick, bumpy, red dry patches that we call eczema develop. Itchiness is such a prominent sign in this disorder that eczema has been called the "itch that rashes" instead of the other way around. The itch-scratch cycle not only worsens the rash, but also interrupts sleep and distracts children in the classroom.