The prevention of eczema in infants and children: an overview of Cochrane and non-Cochrane reviews




Eczema is the most common inflammatory skin disease of childhood, characterized by an itchy red rash that usually involves the face and skin folds. There is currently no curative treatment for eczema, so the reduction of eczema incidence through disease prevention is a desirable goal. Potential interventions for preventing eczema include exclusive breastfeeding, hydrolysed protein formulas and soy formulas when bottle feeding, maternal antigen avoidance, omega oil supplementation, prebiotics and probiotics.


This overview of reviews aims to present the current body of data from Cochrane and non-Cochrane reviews to provide the most up-to-date evidence on the efficacy and safety of interventions to prevent eczema in infants and children at different risk levels for developing allergic disease.


Our pool of Cochrane and non-Cochrane reviews came from the 2010 United Kingdom National Health Service (NHS) Evidence Skin Disorders Annual Evidence Updates Mapping Exercise on Atopic Eczema. This group used a comprehensive search strategy last conducted in August 2010 to identify all systematic reviews on eczema prevention. We identified all reviews that met our pre-specified inclusion criteria, and data were extracted, analysed, compiled into tables and synthesized using quantitative and qualitative methods.

Main results

Seven systematic reviews containing 39 relevant trials with 11 897 participants were included in this overview. Overall, there was no clear evidence that any of the main interventions reviewed reduced eczema incidence. In subgroup analyses of infants at high risk of allergic disease, an observational study found that exclusive breastfeeding for at least six months compared with introduction of solids at three to six months decreased the incidence of eczema by 60% (risk ratio (RR): 0.40; 95% confidence interval (CI): 0.21, 0.78), and a randomized controlled trial found that prebiotics compared with no prebiotics decreased incidence by 58% (RR: 0.42; 95% CI: 0.21, 0.84). However, each of these findings was based on the results of a single small trial, and no intervention reduced eczema incidence beyond the first two years of life. Although we pre-specified incidence of atopic eczema (i.e. eczema associated with immunoglobulin E (IgE) sensitization) as a primary outcome, data on whether participants diagnosed with eczema were truly atopic were largely lacking from systematic reviews. Similarly, data on atopy, measured using skin prick tests or specific IgE tests to allergens, were not reported in many reviews. No interventions were found to decrease atopy when reported. Adverse events data were generally lacking, but data from a trial of probiotics versus no probiotics showed significantly more spitting up in the first one (RR: 1.88; 95% CI: 1.03, 3.45) and two (RR: 1.69; 95% CI: 1.02, 2.80) months of life, but no overall increase in risk of gastrointestinal symptoms in the first year.

Authors' conclusions

Although there is currently no clear evidence showing that any of the interventions examined in this overview prevent eczema in participants not selected for risk of allergic disease, there is some evidence that exclusive breastfeeding for at least six months and prebiotics might reduce eczema incidence in high-risk participants. However, these conclusions are based on limited evidence with methodological shortcomings. Future research on prevention of eczema is needed and should examine different types of hydrolysed formulas, prebiotics and probiotics, as well as enhancement of the skin barrier and other novel approaches in infants at different risk levels for developing allergic disease. Copyright © 2011 The Cochrane Collaboration. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. The Cochrane Collaboration