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All about the eczema itch and some practical tips for struggling parents

Eczema is really itchy and almost impossible not to scratch. Every parent whose child suffers from eczema knows how distressing it can be to watch their youngster claw at their skin until it’s raw. Many little ones struggle to control their itching and can end up with painful broken skin, making the condition worse and increasing the chance of infection. We look at why eczema is so itchy and share some practical methods for managing the itch.

As a parent, it can be difficult to know what to do and how best to help your child handle the urge to itch. The discomfort of eczema is unpleasant in itself, but it can also lead to sleepless nights which make the impact worse. Check out our article on how to keep your cool with an itchy kid.

Apart from the immediate damage caused by scratching, the scratching action can also turn into a habit. To minimise the damage and stop this habit-forming, you will need to give your child some effective strategies for dealing with the very real eczema itch. From experience, being told to ‘stop scratching’ without being told how to stop scratching is incredibly frustrating; but learning how not to scratch is an important life skill for an eczema sufferer. 

Why does eczema make you so itchy?

Roughly one in five children in the UK is affected by eczema, which makes the skin hot, dry and very itchy. The itch is generally known as the worst symptom of eczema as it is incessant and only gets worse when scratched.

Most eczema flare-ups are triggered by the ‘itch-scratch cycle’ which is when itching leads to scratching, which in turn leads to more itching. It’s thought that scratching makes eczema itch worse because it releases inflammatory mediators which leads to the development of more eczema and more dry skin.

The dry skin caused by eczema stimulates the nerve endings in the skin, sending a message to the brain that it is itchy, and the brain will respond with a behaviour which is often scratching that itch.

Read this article to find out what causes the eczema itch

Young boy reaching behind his head to scratch his itchy neck. Photo taken from behind.

Learning how not to scratch is an important life skill for an eczema sufferer

With eczema, prevention is better than cure

The most effective way to stop children scratching eczema is by minimising the itching with a good skin maintenance routine and avoiding known triggers. Keeping rooms cool, dressing itchy kids in loose cotton clothing and avoiding using harsh soaps and detergents on anything (and anyone) they come into contact with. When these measures haven’t worked, a cold compress (or an ice cube) can often be effective to stop localised eczema itching. We keep a novelty gel-filled cold compress in the fridge for the purpose (which also comes in handy for bumps and bruises). Another method of avoiding scratching is to lightly tap or drum the itch with your fingers until it fades – the vibration created by the tapping interferes with the nerve signals responsible for the eczema itch. On really itchy days (or nights), children’s Piriton can be helpful for some children, but it will make them drowsy.

Distraction tactics for scratchy kids

If the itch just won’t go away – distraction can be really effective, especially if it is really interesting or fun and involves both hands. Watch your child and work out if there is a time when they are more likely to scratch. This will often be when they are tired, slightly bored in the car, or pre-occupied watching the TV. Armed with this knowledge you should be able to come up with a strategy to help them.

Fiddly toys like Lego, tangle toys and even a Rubik cube are great for keeping hands out of mischief. We found that Power Ranger action figures were great at keeping our son’s hands busy while he watches the TV. On car journeys, action songs can work well. You don’t have to stick to the original words. When we sing ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ it has ducks, crocodiles and all sorts of silly additions. This really helps to keep the kids’ attention. We also have some great kids games on our mobile phones. These are invaluable for keeping scratchy fingers occupied when we are out and about.

Raise kid’s awareness of their eczema scratching

A lot of kids scratch unconsciously. In these cases, sticker charts are a great way to help children become aware of when they are scratching. Start by telling them that they are scratching or gently moving the offending hand so that they realise that they are scratching. Then you could try a sticker chart with stickers awarded for not scratching at given times of the day.

Start with relatively easy targets. Even 5 minutes will be a real challenge for some kids. Gradually increase the time it takes to earn a sticker. The really great thing with sticker charts is that gives you a chance to reward your child for the major, but largely hidden, the achievement of stopping themselves from scratching.

You could also come up with a secret signal to tell them when they are scratching without realising. It’s much more fun than being told to ‘stop scratching’!

Practical top tips for managing the itch

In our own experience there were a few things that really made a difference at easing the eczema itching which are practical and easy…

  • Cold Packs
    Pressing something cold against the skin can help to ease the itchiness of eczema. Anything cold will do the trick. A cold pack from the fridge, bottle of water or even an ice clubs wrapped in a tea towel. This is an excellent way of instantly relieving your child from itchy skin. While it isn’t a permanent solution, it can be used throughout the day as and when the itching gets worse. Instant ice packs are great when you are out and about.
  • Keep emollients in the fridge
    Smoothing on cold emollient is a great way to soothe a localised itch. Rather than filling up your fridge with huge tubs of emollient, ask your GP to include smaller tubes in your child’s prescription for this purpose.
  • Tapping
    Another great way to help your little ones stop scratching is to lightly tap the itch with your fingers. Tap or drum you fingers as fast as you comfortably can until the itch subsides. It’s thought that this tapping causes a vibration on the skin which interferes with the nerve signals causing the itch.
  • Distraction
    For itches that just won’t go, you can try the distraction strategy. Most kids will scratch more when they are tired or relaxed watching telly. Giving them something to occupy their hands during these times can reduce the scratching. For older children, put a loose elastic band around your child’s wrist. When the itch gets too much to ignore have them twang the band against their wrist. This will help them to re-focus on their wrist rather then the itch.
  • Eczema mittens
    Many children with eczema will scratch during the night when they aren’t even aware they are doing it. Getting them to sleep in ScratchSleeves baby eczema mittens or eczema pyjamas is a great way to tackle overnight scratching. The silk mitts prevent them from damaging their skin in their sleep. Also, remember to clip their nails regularly.
  • Itch relief creams
    Some creams containing anti-itch agents (crotamiton or lauromacrogols) can be bought over the counter. Your GP can prescribe other creams such as doxepin, which has antihistamine action when applied in cream form. We use E45 Itch Relief cream which is licensed for anyone over 1-month-old.
  • A lukewarm bath
    For some children, a lukewarm bath does the trick. Add in a few bath toys to serve as a useful distraction too. Don’t let them soak for too long otherwise, you might cause the skin to become dry. Remember to apply lots of emollient afterwards.

If you have any great tips please let us know on our Facebook page or drop us an email so we can add to this list! 

Here at ScratchSleeves, we don’t just share our experiences of bringing up an eczema child (and favourite allergy-friendly recipes), we also manufacture and sell our unique stay-on scratch mitts and PJs for itchy babies, toddlers and children. We now stock sizes from 0-adult years in a range of colours. Visit our webshop for more information.

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Written by:

Tess joined ScratchSleeves in 2016 and loves being able to help our little clients and other parents who are struggling.

Reviewed by:

Coming from a family of eczema sufferers, Jae draws on years of practical, first hand experience living with eczema.

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