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You Will Survive Your Child's Eczema

My son Phinny was 3 months old when that first spot of eczema appeared on his left cheek. After shunning the pediatrician's recommendation of hydrocortisone cream, I committed to a dairy-free, wheat-free, soy-free diet in an effort to keep my breast milk allergen-free. Yet the insidious red rash continued to creep across my son's sweet face—cheek to cheek, chin to neck—taunting me, daring me, pushing me further in search of the ingested thing, the alternative that literature claimed might be the cause.

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"He'll likely outgrow it," the pediatrician promised at eczema visit number three. By that time, Phinny's entire body was a scaly red palette with abraded white patches. He was 6 months old.

"When?" we pleaded.

He didn't know. "Maybe age 2 or 3. Certainly by 5."

But with each passing year, our son's skin grew worse, often becoming bloody, once even infected. Through it all, Phinny scratched continuously and slept terribly, which meant my husband and I slept terribly, too. When our son scrambled into our bed each night—restless, itchy and unable to settle—one of us would stumble to the couch, seeking enough sleep to make it through the next day. The one who stayed with Phin endured a long night of kicks and itches. And that's how it went for years.

Eczema or atopic dermatitis is not life-threatening. But it's a hard-to-cure allergy-based condition that affects approximately 10 percent of all children. Most doctors claim you can't cure it, only control it, but we couldn't manage to do either. Not with herbs, diet, cotton clothing, natural oils, purified water, snake oils or all of the omega-3s I could sneak into his organic applesauce. Even the cortisone creams—that I eventually resorted to—left us feeling helpless. They might repress the eczema in one spot, but then it would pop up in another. Eventually we quit the steroids, too.

No matter what we did, Phinny's skin was so unsightly that it hurt me to look at it.

On those hellish nights when you feel helpless around your beautiful child's horrible skin, draw a breath and trust, really trust, you will both be OK.

Thinking back on my son's early years, I remember little except how sweet he was despite his discomfort, and how hard it was for me to stay steady. Other mothers were out strolling or playing with their smooth-skinned babies, but I seldom went off scratch-patrol. When I would turn away at the park, Phinny would rub handfuls of sand on his elbows and knees until they bled relief. I began to worry he would never heal, that he would never sleep at a friend's house, go to overnight camp or swim in a pool without the chlorine burning him.

From time to time, I would meet a mother who had somehow endured the same experience and come out on the other side. "Will I get through this?" I'd plead in unmitigated desperation. "Tell me it's going to be OK?"

Just as I needed someone to assure me I would survive, I can be that person for you.

So listen to me. You will get through this. Your child will heal. You will sleep again. I promise.

With the support of a homeopath who treats disease with remedies from the plant, animal and mineral kingdom, Phinny slowly got better. It took some long years and a hefty dose of patience, but, yes, he got better. And your child will, too. Be thoughtful about what you try. Diet. Vitamins. Homeopathy. Cortisone. Prayer. Voodoo. Something will work. Follow a doctor you trust and your gut instinct. And take care of yourself while you're doing it.

Today, my once hopelessly itchy boy is a strapping 16-year-old who runs track and plays varsity soccer and doesn't even think about his skin except to occasionally slap on some sunscreen as he's heading to the pool. He would go on a sleepover every weekend if we let him and has been to at least six overnight camps.

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So on those hellish nights when you feel helpless around your beautiful child's horrible skin, draw a breath and trust, really trust, you will both be OK. This is something to get through, to learn from. At some point it will be a distant memory, and you will be on the other side, sharing your story with another young mom.

Image via Sandra A. Miller

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