Also known as atopic dermatitis, eczema is a very common condition. There are many causes of eczema. However, still, 10% of adults and up to 20% of children are diagnosed with eczema each year. The condition is more common in children, but it can occur at any age.
Eczema is a chronic condition, with periods of flare-ups and remissions. Symptoms include dry, itchy skin with red grayish patches on different parts of the body. Some may have small raised bumps which leak fluid and later turn into crusts.
Infants are more likely to develop eczema on the face, scalp, hands, arms, feet, or legs. These red rashes ooze and usually have crusts. Older children and adults are more likely to have one to four spots of eczema. Usually, it appears on the hands, upper arms, near the elbow, or behind the knees.
Eczema is often associated with asthma and allergies. The better you understand what causes eczema, the easier it will be to manage the symptoms.
In this article, we’ll discuss the many causes of eczema that occur at any age, especially for babies. Medical professionals describe eczema as a multifactorial inflammatory skin disease. It’s caused by a combination of genetics and environmental risk factors.
Genetics, Atopy, and Family History
Genetics is a major factor in the development of eczema. Scientists identified certain genetic defects of the skin barrier that makes a person more likely to develop skin inflammation. Eczema often runs in families. Family members tend to have either one or a combination of eczema, asthma, and hay fever due to atopy.
Atopy refers to the genetic tendency to develop these three conditions. The underlying problem is an overactive immune response. The risk of childhood eczema is two to three times higher in children with mothers or fathers affected by the condition. It’s important to note that eczema is not a contagious disease.
Environmental Factors and the Hygiene Hypothesis
Eczema is much more common amongst residents in developed countries. It’s even more common in urban settings versus rural communities. From these trends, scientists evaluated many environmental factors that could cause eczema.
In the late 20th century, Strachan and Cook introduced the Hygiene Hypothesis. They said large families and increased exposure to early life infections could lead to a lower risk of allergy diseases. Research studies later supported this concept. Children who attended daycare centers or had more siblings or a dog were less likely to develop eczema.
So, one cause of eczema could be that we aren’t exposed to enough bacteria and infections when we’re young. Therefore, our immune systems don’t have a chance to strengthen.
Triggers of Eczema Flare-Ups
We characterize eczema in two phases: early or acute phase and late or chronic phase.
Early or acute phase eczema causes itchy, red, oozing, and sometimes blistered skin. The skin could also have crusts.
Late or chronic phase eczema causes rough, dry skin from scratching and rubbing during acute flare-ups.
Chemicals often cause eczema flare-ups. Household items such as cleaners, detergents, soaps, and shampoos are common causes. Synthetic materials and fabrics such as fluffy carpets or pillows and animal dander also irritate eczema.
Increased body temperature, excessive sweating, and decreased humidity are also risk factors. Emotional stress, food allergies, and upper respiratory infections can also trigger eczema.
For this reason, it is important to avoid stress. Get help from your doctor to identify food allergies and remove the allergens from your diet. Make sure your room is humid enough and use a good-quality air filter. Use hypoallergenic products and avoid harsh chemicals as much as possible.
What Causes Eczema in Babies
Parents often wonder if there are specific causes that trigger eczema in babies. These rashes can change in appearance and location. Usually, eczema in infants develops on the face, cheeks, chin, and scalp. It does not appear in the diaper area where the skin is moist.
Eczema starts to develop in babies between 6-12 months old on the elbow and knees. These places can be easily scratched and rubbed when babies crawl. These rashes may also become infected and form a yellowish crust or small bumps filled with pus.
In addition to the risk factors that trigger flare-ups mentioned in the previous section, babies have additional risks in their environment. Since they play with stuffed animals, plastic toys and games, and use bottles, these could all be risks. Babies aren’t always able to communicate when something in their environment bothers them. They also can’t express themselves when they’re stressed. So, it’s important to pay attention to their behavior constantly.
Furthermore, the immune system, endocrine, and nervous system are still developing. So, infants and babies are more vulnerable to chemicals.
For this reason, try to avoid exposure to unnecessary chemicals if you have an infant. For example, replace flame retardants found in bedding, car seats, and baby products with 100% cotton or wool products.
BPA, a chemical banned by the FDA from baby bottles in 2021 is still found in other household products. Preliminary studies found BPA may aggravate inflammation related to allergic reactions. When possible, choose BPA-free products. Replace plastic products with 100% biodegradable recyclable BPA-free packaging. If a BPA-free option is unavailable, choose plastic with the recycling codes 1, 2, 4, 5, or 6. These are less likely to contain BPA.
So, there are many things that cause eczema and trigger flare-ups in both children and adults. As so many people suffer from the condition, which has no cure, it’s important to be aware of the causes and triggers. Avoid known triggers and try to avoid potential ones. This should keep you from experiencing flare-ups.
In babies, choose BPA-free products, toys, and bottles. Keep an eye on the chemicals they’re exposed to and if they’re feeling stressed. This could trigger their eczema.