Eczema is common in childhood, and for 30 per cent of children with eczema, food is thought to contribute to their symptoms. For around 10 per cent, food is the main or only trigger.
Food triggers can have three main effects on children with eczema:
Certain foods, such as cow’s milk and eggs, cause itching to get worse and making your child scratch himself. This can damage his skin and cause inflammation and infection. A key sign of this sort of reaction is redness and irritation around the mouth after eating a particular food.
Immediate food hypersensitivity
Some children suffer swelling, redness and possibly nettle rash within five minutes to two hours of eating certain foods. Other symptoms may include vomiting, tummy pain, wheezing, itchy eyes and sneezing. In rare cases, a child may develop anaphylaxis: a rapid and extreme reaction affecting his breathing, which can cause loss of consciousness.
Delayed food hypersensitivity
Some children’s symptoms flare up between two and 24 hours after eating a trigger food, and last for several hours or longer. As well as his eczema worsening, your child may suffer from tummy pain and/or diarrhoea.
When to wean
Babies under six months are more likely to develop eczema and other allergies if exposed to certain foods, so experts advise waiting until he’s six months old before introducing solids. Children who have a parent or sibling with an allergic condition such as a food allergy, asthma, hay fever or eczema are at greater risk.
When you do introduce solids, start gradually and begin with the least allergenic foods, such as rice, potatoes, vegetables, apple, pear and banana. Always wait until at least six months before giving your baby common trigger foods like dairy products, eggs, soya and wheat, and then introduce them one at a time. Allow a day or two between each new food so you can spot any reaction. By nine months, your baby should be trying most foods, and enjoying a varied diet.
Spotting trigger foods
If you’re concerned that a food is causing eczema, your doctor can advise you on the best treatment. To help identify problem foods, he may recommend:
Keeping a diary
For four to six weeks, note down the time and date of eczema, scratching, sleep and all food and drink that your child has. It may reveal a pattern.
Skin prick test
This test involves drops of food extract being placed onto your child’s skin. A small scratch is made on the skin. If redness and irritation develops, it confirms the allergic reaction.
Your doctor may arrange a blood test to measure the amount of antibodies (the substance causing the reaction) in your child’s blood after eating a suspect food. If there’s a high level, it’s likely that the food is causing a reaction.
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If other forms of treatment aren’t helping, eliminating suspect foods from your child’s diet may help, particularly if he’s under three. Your GP or dietician may suggest cutting out all suspected problem foods for two weeks, then re-introducing one food at a time every three days, making note of any symptoms. To avoid nutritional imbalances, elimination diets should only be followed under medical guidance.
Outgrowing allergic eczema
Eczema is more common in children under three years, but many older children grow out of it. For this reason, once your child is three, your doctor may suggest re-introducing the foods he is sensitive to. Introducing the food in small quantities, and waiting for three days to monitor his eczema symptoms, can help you to see if your child has outgrown his sensitivity.