Two-year-old Sebastian* had suffered from dry, itchy skin since he was a baby, with rough, inflamed patches on his ankles and in the creases behind his elbows and knees. He also caught the flu, coughs and allergic rhinitis frequently. When his eczema-related itches or coughs woke him up at night, anti-histamines prescribed by his paediatrician offered temporary relief.
Anxious to rid their child not just of the symptoms but the cause of his eczema, his parents consulted a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) physician who prescribed oral herbal medication.
By the second week of treatment, the itchiness had become less intense and his skin was smoother. Sebastian’s cough had also cleared.
The toddler has since been given a second oral herbal concoction to nourish the qi – or vital energy – of his lungs, and boost his digestive and immune systems.
An alternative approach to eczema
As many as one in ten infants1 have some form of eczema, the most common of which is atopic dermatitis. The word ‘atopic’ denotes a form of allergy, and young children with this type of eczema often have other allergy-related symptoms – as in the case of Sebastian.
While anti-histamines do provide much needed relief, TCM believes in treating not just “the branch” (the symptoms) but also the root (the cause) – and has been doing so with measurable success.
Between 2006 and 2008, Dr Julia Wisniewski, a researcher at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, treated 14 children with persistent eczema with TCM therapies. Besides being given Erka Shizheng Herbal Tea twice a day, the children soaked in an herbal bath daily, applied an herbal cream to their skin, and underwent acupuncture treatments.
Improvements were seen as early as the three-month mark, and six months on, red scaly hands and feet appeared normal. Dr Wisniewski has stressed the need for alternative treatments for eczema, as many patients with severe allergies continue to have flare-ups as long as a decade after standard therapy with steroids and immune-suppressing agents.2
An earlier study produced equally convincing results. In 1992, 37 children who had not responded to conventional treatments were treated with herbal medicine over the course of a year.3 At the end of that period, 18 children showed at least a 90 per cent reduction in eczema flare-ups and another five showed smaller degrees of improvement.4
TCM practitioners believe that common childhood ailments, including skin problems like eczema, are linked to children’s still developing organs, particularly the kidneys, lungs and spleen. Lower levels of qi, blood, yin and yang during the developmental years also cause them to be more susceptible to pathogens, specifically wind, heat and dampness.
Treatment, therefore, focusses on countering pathogens and strengthening immature organs, and body as a whole. In the case of Sebastian, the initial phase of treatment included herbs to reduce accumulated heat, wind and phlegm in his lungs. The second phase, begun once his symptoms had improved, nourished the yin and qi of his lungs, and boosted his digestive and immune systems.
“In TCM, childhood eczema is an allergic reaction that is caused by both internal and external factors. Internal factors are often linked to an imbalance in the lungs,” explains EYS physician Anita Pee. “Externally, the main factors are pathogens - usually dampness, heat or wind. Other factors like a breastfeeding mother not being in optimal health or the parents dressing the child in excessive clothing can also cause skin issues.”
Another common childhood skin problem, infant acne, is often associated with heat and damp heat lingering in the organs and meridians, she says.
Treating the root of childhood skin problems often involve herbs like Milkvetch root (黄芪), Largehead Atractylodes rhizome (白术), and Divaricate Saposhnikovia root (防风) which can be taken by children as soon as they start on solid food, and with the advice of a qualified TCM physician.
For children older than six months, treatment may also include paediatric tui na, a gentle massage that focuses on specific pressure points on the body, and promotes the release of neurotransmitters. This strengthens the immune system and helps prevent future flare ups of acne or eczema in children, says Ms Pee.
Paediatric tuina is also soothing and relaxing for children, which is why this is a preferred mode of treatment for parents. Parents should, however, bear in mind that paediatric tui na is quite different from adult tui na, and seek the help of a qualified TCM physician.
Treating problems holistically
Beyond traditional therapies, TCM physicians often also prescribe dietary and lifestyle changes as part of a holistic treatment programme. With skin problems, parents are often encouraged to swaddle or dress their infants and young children in natural, breathable fabrics like cotton, and to avoid wool or synthetic fibres that may overheat sensitive skin.
Breastfeeding mothers may also be advised to avoid deep-fried and spicy foods as these may trigger more heat and dampness in the infant’s lungs.
Once the child starts eating solid food, parents may be advised to avoid feeding them dairy, raw or greasy food and too much fruit juice as these may cause excessive heating or cooling to the child’s still undeveloped digestive system5. Instead, children with skin problems should be offered meals that are not overly spiced or seasoned, and preferably made with natural or organic ingredients to reduce skin inflammation.
For recommendations that are specific to your child’s constitution, do consult a qualified TCM practitioner.
*Not his real name
1. National Eczema Association. (2015). Understanding your child’s eczema. Retrieved from National Eczema Association Website: https://nationaleczema.org/eczema/child-eczema/
2. Laino, C. (2009, March 17). Can Chinese Herbs Relieve Eczema? Retrieved from Web MD Website: http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/eczema/news/20090317/can-chinese-herbs-relieve-eczema#1
3. Sheehan, M. P., & Atherton, D. (1992, February). A controlled trial of traditional Chinese medicinal plants in widespread non-exudative atopic eczema. British Journal of Dermatology, 126(2), 179- 184. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2133.1992.tb07817.x
4. Sheehan, M. P., & Atherton, D. (1994, April). One-year follow up of children treated with Chinese medicinal herbs for atopic eczema. British Journal of Dermatology, 130(4), 488-493. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2133.1994.tb03383.x
5. Stanescu, A. (2006, February 1). TCM for Childhood Eczema. Retrieved from Vitality Magazine Website: http://vitalitymagazine.com/article/tcm-for-childhood-eczema/