How to head off cradle cap
While it's a common concern, cradle cap is harmless, if unslightly. Arlene Harris offers some tips on dealing with it
Skin conditions must run in my family as there has always been someone suffering with something on the surface - whether it was dermatitis, psoriasis or eczema. So it should have come as no surprise to me when my three children all developed cradle cap at a very early age.
I was assured by doctors that the condition wasn't painful for them but it is incredibly unsightly and, if left unchecked, would eventually cover the whole scalp and become infected. Resisting the urge to peel off the flaking skin as underneath it could be raw or oozing, I tried a variety of different treatments including various shampoos and creams.
But what seemed to work best for my babies was pure and simple baby oil which softened the skin and, when it was ready, would fall off when I gently washed the scalp. This to me seemed like the kindest option as putting something medicated on such tiny heads seemed far too harsh.
Once the initial crusting had disappeared, none of my sons had a recurrence and I'm putting this down to the fact that they must have simply grown out of it - either that or the baby oil penetrated so deep into the skin that it kept them moisturised.
Dr Mark Murphy is the chairman of communications for the Irish College of General Practitioners. He says cradle cap is very common and while, like my own sons, sufferers can be relieved of the symptoms within a few weeks, it can continue for a lot longer.
"Cradle cap is a very common condition, which affects the scalp of recently born babies, causing a patchy, greasy, scaly and crusty skin rash," he says. "It is sometimes called infantile seborrhoeic dermatitis and is easily managed by general practitioners.
"Sometimes infantile seborrhoeic dermatitis may also affect other areas of the body such as behind the ears, in the creases of the neck, armpits and diaper area. And while it typically occurs within the first six weeks of life, it would usually resolve over a few weeks on its own. However, in some cases, it can continue for six to nine months, or longer. But most babies are not aware they have the rash and it is not itchy."
Dr Murphy says while there is no known cause for cradle cap, there are many effective treatments.
"We do not know the cause of cradle cap but it is not caused by poor hygiene or an infection," he says. "It is usually treated with mild baby shampoos and so the scalp should be washed regularly - this along with soft brushing should help to remove the scales.
"A second treatment involves rubbing baby oil or mineral oil (but not olive oil) as this may help soften the scales, which can then be more easily removed. However, if the cradle cap doesn't improve with frequent washing or if the rash spreads to other areas, your GP may consider other treatments including a mild steroid cream or an anti-fungal agent."
A spokesperson for the HSE says when the symptoms start to appear, parents should start treatment straight away and should avoid picking off the scales as it could cause infection.
"Cradle cap is a very distinctive condition and symptoms include greasy yellow patches on the scalp, scales, flakes and yellow crusts and the skin surrounding the patches will appear red," she says.
"It usually starts on the scalp and can spread behind the ears or to other parts of the body. There is also the possibility that the child will have hair loss when the patch falls off or is removed. But it is very important not to scratch or pick at the cradle cap, in case an infection develops."
The spokeswoman agrees with Dr Murphy about the cause of cradle cap being unknown but says there is some research which says it can be linked to a residue of maternal hormones in the baby's body.
"The cause of cradle cap is not clear, although it may be linked to overactive sebaceous glands, which are glands in the skin that produce an oily substance called sebum," she says.
"It is thought that some babies retain some of their mother's hormones in their bodies for several weeks or months after the birth and these may make their glands more active, so they produce more sebum which causes old skin cells to stick to the scalp, instead of drying up and falling off as they would normally do."
Cradle cap facts
* Cradle cap usually occurs in newborn babies and lasts up to six weeks, but can last longer.
* Treatments include shampoo, baby oil and, if necessary, an antifungal treatment or a course of steroids. l Cradle cap is not contagious.
* If a baby has cradle cap, it doesn’t mean the child has an infection or is not being looked after properly.
* Research has found that babies who get cradle cap often have family members with allergy-type conditions, such as asthma and eczema.
* There is also a possibility that a child who has cradle cap may have other types of seborrhoeic dermatitis, such as dandruff, when they are older.
For more information visit www.hse.ie