The connection between eczema and learning disabilities is a relatively new area of research. However, existing studies suggest there is a link.

Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, typically begins in childhood. It causes inflamed, irritated, and itchy skin.

Complications of eczema can impact a child’s emotional, social, and mental health. It can affect their self-confidence and performance at school, leading researchers to wonder about the connection between the skin condition and learning disabilities.

This article examines the link and discusses whether eczema affects intellectual development. It also offers support and management options for eczema and tips for parents and caregivers.

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Intellectual or cognitive development is the growth and maturation of thought processes.

These processes can include:

  • perceiving
  • remembering
  • imagining
  • reasoning
  • concept formation
  • problem solving

Children can often show logical, concrete reasoning at ages 7–11 years. They develop more sophisticated and advanced thinking from the age of 12 years.

Several factors may affect a child’s cognitive development, such as biological, socioeconomic, environmental, and psychosocial factors. According to the National Eczema Association, eczema can affect a child’s typical development, resulting in developmental delays.

A 2020 analysis found that cognitive issues, such as developmental delays, memory impairment, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), were higher among children with eczema than those without.

Every child develops on their own timeline, so it can be challenging for parents and caregivers to determine whether eczema may be affecting their development. They can speak with a healthcare professional if they have concerns.

A 2021 study of 2,074 children with eczema found a link between the skin condition and learning disabilities. The results suggest that children with learning disabilities may be more likely to have more severe eczema than those without learning disabilities.

For example, 29.8% of the children with a learning impairment had moderate eczema, compared with 17% of the participants without learning difficulties.

Similarly, 8.9% of those who had a learning impairment had severe eczema, compared with 4.5% of those who did not have a learning disability.

The study authors noted that worsening severity of eczema was associated with higher learning disability rates. Children with the most severe eczema were three times more likely to have a learning disability.

Another 2021 study suggested a link between eczema and a lower level of education.

Potential explanations

Experts do not yet know the precise reason for the link between eczema and learning disabilities. Some suggest it is possible that eczema can affect children in various ways that may impact their education.

For example, there is an association between eczema and the following:

A 2023 study also found an association between eczema in children and reduced readiness for school in terms of activeness and concentration.

The American Academy of Dermatology Association notes that sleep disturbances and related symptoms in children with eczema could lead to a misdiagnosis of a behavioral condition or learning disability in children.

Services and support are available for children with developmental delays and disabilities and their families.

Early intervention

Intervention is more likely to be effective and improve outcomes for children and their families if it occurs earlier in life.

Early intervention programs exist for children under age 3, and children who are more than 3 years old can access help through a local public elementary school, even if the child does not attend the school.

At school

Children with eczema may need support in the classroom if discomfort and itching prevent them from reaching their expected developmental and grade levels.

For example, poor sleep may cause difficulty concentrating, and severe eczema may affect fine motor skills, such as handwriting. According to the National Eczema Association, schools may offer laptops or other devices for individuals who experience difficulty holding a pen or pencil.

Schools may also make other adjustments, such as the following:

  • more frequent breaks
  • shorter assignments
  • more appropriate seating arrangements
  • time out of the classroom to apply skin treatments

The school may help the family develop a 504 Plan, a document that sets out a child’s needs and the accommodations or services the school can provide to remove any barriers to learning.

Parents and caregivers can speak with their child’s teacher or the school’s 504 Coordinator if they think a plan like this could help their child.

Parents and caregivers can help children understand what worsens their eczema and inform schools of their triggers.

An individual healthcare plan can include personal information about a child and their eczema to build an understanding between caregivers and school staff.

Eczema triggers and their solutions at school may include the following:

  • Clothing: Some fibers and wool can cause irritation and itching. Wearing 100% cotton or cotton layers underneath clothes may prevent itchiness.
  • Overheating: Getting too hot in the classroom or outside can worsen symptoms. A child may need access to a cooler classroom area or to sit closer to a window than a radiator.
  • Physical education: A child may overheat during sports, triggering itching and scratching. Exposure to dust and tree pollen may also cause skin issues. Wearing cotton clothing that covers the skin can reduce exposure to dust and pollen, and applying an emollient before swimming can help protect the skin.
  • Messy play, art, and cooking: Some foods, paint, sand, and clay can be irritants. A child could wear gloves with a cotton liner when participating in these activities and wash their hands with an emollient afterward instead of soap and water.
  • Carpet time: Sitting on surfaces such as carpets could irritate eczema. A child may sit on a cotton liner, cushion, or chair instead, particularly during warmer months when wearing shorter layers.

Making a few adjustments to a child’s classroom environment could help remove some of the distractions related to eczema that can lead to difficulties with concentration and learning.

If a parent or caregiver is concerned about their child’s learning, they can ask the child’s school to check for a learning disorder or get a private assessment outside the school system.

Children will typically have a series of evaluations by various professionals, such as:

These professionals determine whether the child’s difficulties meet the criteria for a learning disorder and, if so, which service may be able to help. Parents can also ensure that their child has regularly scheduled visits to a pediatrician for routine developmental screenings.

If a child has symptoms of eczema and the recommended treatments are not helping, it is best for parents or caregivers to talk with a healthcare professional for advice. Managing and relieving symptoms can help a child focus and concentrate at school.

Eczema resources

Visit our dedicated hub for more research-backed information and in-depth resources on eczema.

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Eczema symptoms can be severe and may affect a child’s cognitive development. Some studies have found a link between childhood eczema and learning disabilities or a lower level of education.

Children younger than 3 years old can get support through their local early intervention system, and those ages 3 years and above can access help through a local public elementary school.

Parents and caregivers can help by identifying triggers that worsen their child’s eczema and communicating with school staff to ensure these do not cause barriers to their learning.