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This post is based on teaching by Jean Robinson, Clinical Nurse Specialist in Paediatric Dermatology at the Royal London Hospital; and notes by Joe Piper.

The broad principles are of eczema are:

Emollients are to put moisture into the skin

Steroids are to reduce inflammation

Note: a skin flare up is always itchy – if it’s not, then question the diagnosis.

Can we cure it?

Atopic eczema is seen in 15-20% of children. There is no cure, and so treatment aims to control rather than cure the eczema. The aim is to get it under control. 80% will improve by puberty/teenage years with topical treatments. There will be remits and relapses, and children and families require education and support.

50% will resolve by age 7, but be careful with the figures you share with parents, as they may be disappointed when it does not improve. 85% of eczema sufferers have mild eczema, and most start with symptoms after one year of age.

Bad disease is usually due to poor management from the practitioner, or being on the right treatment but having poor compliance.

Poor adherence is the number one reason for a flare. There are often lots of psychological issues: embarrassment; bullying; confusion around treatment. Well-meaning relatives/friends can give contradictory advice and suggests alternative therapies.

Families will present with a mixture of frustration, stress, reduced quality of life, and are often miserable, with sleep disturbance. Eczema needs to be taken seriously and managed well. There is a similar reduction in quality of life to families of other chronic disease patients – partly due to sleep disturbance, but also a because it is a very visible disease.

Management principle 1 – Bathing

Bathing was previously advised for 15 minutes daily, in lukewarm water, with added oil.

The recent publication of the BATHE trial has turned this advice on its head. The Southampton-based trial randomised 483 children with atopic dermatitis to either have emollient added to the bath for 12 months or no emollient added to the bath for 12 months. Outcomes were eczema control and eczema severity. The BATHE trial showed no benefit in adding emollients to the bath.

However, there is ongoing debate amongst dermatologists as to whether this study is applicable to those being treated by specialist dermatology teams.

  1. The BATHE trial was conducted in patients being managed in primary care.
  2. No benefit was shown in the group who bathe 4 times or less per week; however, when looking at those who bathed more frequently, a clinically meaningful benefit was demonstrated (although it was small).

So for now, our hospital-based dermatology team at my own hospital in London, still recommends emollients in bath oils.

For bath oil, use Oilatum Junior or Hydromol. Use one capful for one baby bath. If a normal bath is being used, then use two to three capfuls and make sure it is mixed in well.

Oilatum Plus has antiseptic in it, and hence can cause bad dermatitis if not mixed in water well. Many centres do not recommend this version any more.

When washing with water – use a soap-free cleanser when washing as the water on its own will dry out the skin. The most infected use Dermol 500 as a soap substitute, and it can be used on the face. Consider applying this after washing hands, at nursery (this can be hard to do at school).

These are all prescribable: we should encourage GPs and us to prescribe it, so that parents do not have to buy it (to improve compliance)

Reactions to aqueous cream in children are so common that it should only be used as a soap substitute, and not as a leave-on emollient.

Management principle 2 – Steroids

There are four different strengths:

Mild: 1% hydrocortisone, (Fucidin H: Fucidin & Hydrocortisone)

Moderate: Eumovate (clobetasone butyrate 0.05%) – this is the strongest you should use on the face, Betnovate RD (reduced dilution 0.025%). These can be used for those over one year (if repeated courses are needed despite the eczema not improving then the patient should be referred to dermatology)

Potent: Betamethasone 0.1%, Fucibet (fucidin & betamethasone) –  microbial resistance is high in the UK, so only use for 14 days),  Elocon (mometasone furoate). These are the strongest for the body. They can be used for short term treatment i.e. one to two weeks, but you probably need a dermatology opinion if there is no response to the initial course.

Super-potent: Dermovate (clobetasol propionate), Clobaderm. These are dermatology recommended only.

Know the generic names as well as the brand names and check the percentage.

Hydrocortisone cream vs ointment – ointment is oilier and better.

The cream has more water and more additives. Only give the cream if the patient doesn’t  like ointments.

Note: If very very infected and ointment will slide off, then cream has better application, but this is very rare, even within dermatology (<2%).

How do you apply steroids?

As a rough guide – one finger tip unit (i.e. squeezed over adult finger) should be enough to cover two adult palm-sized areas.

It is much easier to say ‘apply enough so it looks shiny’. Do all the application with a finger, not with the hand, otherwise the majority will be absorbed before it reaches the child.

Make sure steroids are applied to inflamed areas, including open areas. But don’t apply it on surgical wounds or ulcers.

Skin thinning is rarely an issue (we hardly ever see skin thinning from topical steroid use, but we see loads of under treated children) – so avoid saying ‘apply a thin layer’.

The advice should be:

  • Start with pea-sized lump
  • Apply to all of the active area, including lichenified areas, hyperpigmented areas
  • Leave the healthy bits
  • For papular areas – anything that is thickened is inflamed and needs treating with steroids

Apply steroids twice a day in general, but there is a move to use them once a day (Mometasone is once a day)

Which steroids to choose?

Start with hydrocortisone on the face. If the eczema is severe, you can go up to a moderately potent steroid (e.g. Eumovate) on the face and potent on the body, but often this should be discussed with dermatology, and should certainly be discussed if it is not improving after two weeks. However, be more cautious in babies – from four months of age, you can use Eumovate (moderately potent) on the body.

Do not use potent steroids without specialist advice.

Only apply the steroids to active eczema. Use the steroids for seven days, and you can stop if it has completely cleared with no inflammation. There may be a need for longer steroid use e.g. for 14 days, 28 days, or 33 days for small, persistent parts.

Chronic relapse is very common and people struggle on for long time with too weak steroids. Often it is better to then try short dose of stronger steroids. Moderate or potent steroids for short periods only can be used in the axillae and groin – it can be difficult with skin folds to get to the active area. Generally, do not use potent steroid in children (e.g. Betnovate) without specialist advice. You can go up to potent/moderately potent on scalp.

Make sure you show people how to use the steroids i.e. consider it the same as checking inhaler technique.

Management principle 3 – Emollients

Use the greasiest the family are happy to use. If the child has very sore skin, then 50/50 is the greasiest.

With paraffin, beware of smoking, and open fires.

Lotions are acceptable, but not as greasy, so should be used only if the family are finding a greasy emollient too difficult.

The rough estimate is using one pot every two weeks (250g-500g), and use it four times a day if it’s bad enough for hospital presentation, otherwise they can step it down to twice a day

Pump dispensers are cleaner, but you cannot use emollients in a pump dispenser. From a tub, use a clean spoon at home, ideally with a saucer. Apply the emollient in the direction of hairs, so that it does not upset hairs and potentially lead to folliculitis. After a bath, the skin is very moist and so there is better absorption.

Put the steroid on first and then wait for 20-30 minutes and then put the emollient on top.

Keep going with emollients even when the eczema is clear. If the child is still scratching, use emollients.

If you want to dive a little deeper then read these previous posts…

The basics by Dilshad Marikar

Living with eczema by Andrea Coe

Complications by Andrea Coe

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