Reversing the Habit of Scratching

Last updated: February 2021

If you are a parent to a child with atopic dermatitis (AD) or eczema, chances are you struggle with stopping your child from scratching. Constant scratching due to the itchiness caused by AD can break the skin and lead to harmful side effects such as bleeding or infection.1

Home remedies to provide relief

The best way to stop the itching is to get AD under control. But this can take time, and there are many factors that can lead to or worsen flare-ups. There are, however, some at-home solutions that you can try to help relieve your child’s itching and prevent excessive scratching.1

  • Use a cool compress to provide itch relief— Using a clean towel or cloth, soak with cool water and wring out until it is no longer dripping, but still damp. Apply to itchy area and moisturize after removing the compress.1
  • Add colloidal oatmeal to a lukewarm bath— Do not use hot water. Allow your child to soak no longer than 10 or 15 minutes, then gently but thoroughly dry your child and apply moisturizer to the affected area(s).1
  • Apply ointment to securely itchy areas— A thick layer of eczema-friendly ointment, such as petroleum jelly, can temporarily relieve itchiness.1
  • Distraction— Get your child engaged in an activity he or she enjoys to distract your child from itching.1
  • Reduce stressAnxiety and stress can cause flare-ups and make the skin feel itchier. Find ways to help your child reduce his or her worry through techniques such as mindfulness, stretching, or breathing exercises. Nagging your child to stop itching can actually increase anxiety about the itch, so try these relaxing techniques instead.1

Help! I’ve tried everything. Can the habit of scratching be broken?

Scientists have already been able to show that a behavior therapy known as habit-reversing therapy can be effective in reducing itching in adult patients with AD.1-3 A recent clinical study in children also showed positive effects when applied to scratching from AD.4

Habit-reversing therapy involves identifying an undesirable behavior, or habit, and replacing that behavior with a different, acceptable and distracting behavior. In the case of scratching, habit-reversal therapy requires that instead of scratching the itch, another activity replaces that action, such as clenching the fists or pressing on the area with a fingernail until the itching stops.

Sustaining the replacement behavior

Parent involvement is required for children, as this replacement behavior is typically rewarded with praise. When scratching does occur, rather than advising the child stop scratching, parental intervention is also needed. For example, gently moving the child’s hand away from the problem area and reminding him or her to practice the replacement behavior. Distractions can also be used to disrupt scratching.4

When combined with corticosteroid cream applied to the skin, habit-reversal therapy led to less scratching than when children only received the corticosteroid cream to relieve itch in this particular study.4

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