By David Dunaif, M.D.
Eczema is a common problem in both children and adults. Therefore, you would think there would be a plethora of research, right? Well, that’s only partly true. While there is a significant amount of research in primarily neonates and some on pediatric patients, there is not a lot of research on adults with eczema. But in my practice, I see a good number of adult patients who present with, among other disorders, eczema.
The prevalence of this disease rivals the prevalence of diabetes. In the United States, more than 10 percent of the adult population is afflicted (1). Twice as many females as males are affected, according to one study (2). Thus, we need more research.
Eczema is also referred to more broadly as atopic dermatitis. The cause is unknown, but it is thought that nature and nurture are both at play (3). Eczema is a chronic inflammatory process that involves symptoms of pruritus (itching) pain, rashes and erythema (redness) (4). There are three different severities: mild, moderate and severe. Adults tend to have eczema closer to the moderate-to-severe range.
Factors that can trigger eczema flare-ups include emotional stress, excessive bathing, dry skin, dry environment and detergent exposure (5). Treatments for eczema run the gamut from over-the-counter creams and lotions to prescription steroid creams to systemic (oral) steroids. Some use phototherapy for severe cases, but the research on phototherapy is scant. Antihistamines are sometimes used to treat the itchiness. Also, lifestyle modifications may play an important role, specifically diet. Two separate studies have shown an association between eczema and fracture, which we will investigate further. Let’s look at the evidence.
Eczema doesn’t just scratch the surface
Eczema causes cracked and irritated skin, but it may also be related to broken bones. In a newly published observational study, results showed that those with eczema had a 44 percent increased risk of injury causing limitation and an even more disturbing 67 percent risk of bone fracture and bone or joint injury for those 30 years and older (6). And if you have both fatigue or insomnia and eczema, you are at higher risk for bone or joint injury than having one or the other alone. Antihistamines may cause more fatigue. One reason for increased fracture risk, the researchers postulate, is the use of corticosteroids in treatment.
Steroids may weaken bone, ligaments and tendons and may cause osteoporosis by decreasing bone mineral density. Chronic inflammation may also contribute to the risk of bone loss. There were 34,500 patients involved in the study ranging in age from 18 to 85.
Another study corroborates these results that eczema increases the risk for sustained injury (7). There was a 48 percent increased risk of fracture at any location in the body and an even greater 87 percent increased risk of fracture in the hip and spine when compared to those who did not have eczema.
Not suprisingly, researchers’ hypotheses for the causes of increased fracture risk were similar to those of the above study: systemic steroid use and chronic inflammation of the disease, itself. The researchers analyzed the database from NHANES 2005-2006, with almost 5,000 patients involved in this study. When oral steroid was given for at least a month, there was a 44 percent increased risk of osteoporosis. For those who have eczema and have been treated with steroids, it may be wise to have a DEXA (bone) scan.
Are supplements the answer?
The thought of supplements somehow seems more appealing for some than medicine. There are two well-known supplements for helping to reduce inflammation, evening primrose oil and borage oil. Are these supplements a good replacement for medications or at least a beneficial addition? The research is really mixed, leaning toward ineffective.
In a recent meta-analysis (involving seven randomized controlled trials, the gold standard of studies), evening primrose oil was no better than placebo in treating eczema (8). The researchers also looked at eight studies of borage oil and found there was no difference from placebo in terms of symptom relief. One positive is that these supplements only had minor side effects. But don’t look to supplements for help.
Where are we on the drug front?
The FDA has given fast track processing to a biologic monoclonal antibody known as dupilumab (9). In trials, the drug has shown promise for treating moderate to severe eczema when topical steroids are not effective. An FDA decision is due by late March (10). We will have to wait for the verdict on this drug in development.
Do probiotics have a place?
When we think of probiotics, we think of taking a pill. However, there are also potentially topical probiotics with atopic dermatitis. In preliminary in-vitro (in a test tube) studies, the results look intriguing and show that topical probiotics from the human microbiome (gut) could potentially work as well as steroids (11). This may be part of the road to treatments of the future. However, this is in very early stage of development.
What about lifestyle modifications?
Wouldn’t it be nice if what we ate could make a difference in eczema? Well, in a study involving pregnant women and their offspring, results showed that when these women ate either a diet high in green and yellow vegetables, beta carotene or citrus fruit there was a significant reduction in the risk of the child having eczema of 59 percent, 48 percent and 47 percent, respectively, when comparing highest to lowest consumption quartiles (12). This was a Japanese study involving over 700 mother-child pairings.
Elimination diets may also play a role. One study’s results showed when eggs were removed from the diet in those who were allergic, according to IgE testing, eczema improved significantly (13).
From an anecdotal perspective, I have seen very good results when treating patients who have eczema with dietary changes. My patient population includes about 15 to 20 percent of patients who suffer some level of eczema. For example, a young adult had eczema mostly on the extremities. When I first met the patient, these were angry, excoriated, erythematous and scratched lesions. However, after several months of a vegetable-rich diet, the patient’s skin had all but cleared.
I also have a personal interest in eczema. I suffered from hand eczema, where my hands would become painful and blotchy and then crack and bleed. This all stopped for me when I altered my diet over 10 years ago.
Eczema exists on a spectrum from annoying to significantly affecting a patient’s quality of life (14). Supplements may not be the solution, at least not borage oil or evening primrose oil. However, there may be promising topical probiotics ahead and medications for the hard to treat. It might be best to avoid long-term systemic steroid use; it could not only impact the skin but also may impact the bone. But don’t wait to treat the disease. Lifestyle modifications appear to be very effective, at least at the anecdotal level.
References: (1) J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2013;132(5):1132-1138. (2) BMC Dermatol. 2013;13(14). (3) Acta Derm Venereol (Stockh) 1985;117 (Suppl.):1-59. (4) uptodate.com. (5) Br J Dermatol. 2006; 1553:504. (6) JAMA Dermatol. 2015;151(1):33-41. (7) J Allergy Clin Immunol. Online Dec. 13, 2014. (8) Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013;4:CD004416. (9) Medscape.com. (10) www.medpagetoday.com (11) ACAAI 2014: Abstracts P328 and P329. (12) Allergy. 2010 Jun 1;65(6):758-765. (13) J Am Acad Dermatol. 2004;50(3):391-404. (14) Contact Dermatitis 2008; 59:43-47.
Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com or consult your personal physician.