Most treatments focus on managing symptoms of itchiness or redness
By David Dunaief, M.D
Referred to more broadly as atopic dermatitis, the cause of eczema is unknown, but it is thought that nature and nurture are both at play (1). Eczema is a chronic inflammatory process that involves symptoms of pruritus (itching) pain, rashes and erythema (redness) (2).
Eczema is common in both children and adults. In the United States, it’s estimated that over seven percent of the adult population is afflicted (3), with twice as many females as males affected (4). Ranging in severity from mild to moderate to severe, adults tend to have moderate to severe eczema.
Treatments for eczema run the gamut from over-the-counter creams and lotions to prescription steroid creams to systemic (oral) steroids and injectable biologics. 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 isn’t just superficial
Eczema may also be related to broken bones, according to several studies. For example, one observational study 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 (5). 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. 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. For those who have eczema and have been treated with steroids, it may be wise to have a DEXA (bone) scan.
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 – or addition to – medications? The research is really mixed, leaning toward ineffective.
In a meta-analysis (involving seven randomized controlled trials, the gold standard of studies), evening primrose oil was no better than placebo in treating eczema (6). 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 significant help.
Dupilumab is a biologic monoclonal antibody (7). In trials, this injectable drug showed good results, improving outcomes for moderate to severe eczema sufferers when topical steroids alone were not effective. Like any drug therapy, it is not without side effects, though.
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 (8). 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?
In a Japanese study involving over 700 pregnant women and their offspring, results showed that when the 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 (9).
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 (10).
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 many years ago.
Eczema exists on a spectrum from annoying to significantly affecting a patient’s quality of life (11). 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. Lifestyle modifications appear to be very effective, at least at the anecdotal level.
(1) Acta Derm Venereol (Stockh) 1985;117 (Suppl.):1-59. (2) uptodate.com. (3) J Inv Dermatol. 2017;137(1):26-30. (4) BMC Dermatol. 2013;13(14). (5) JAMA Dermatol. 2015;151(1):33-41. (6) Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013;4:CD004416. (7) Medscape.com. (8) ACAAI 2014: Abstracts P328 and P329. (9) Allergy. 2010 Jun 1;65(6):758-765. (10) J Am Acad Dermatol. 2004;50(3):391-404. (11) Contact Dermatitis 2008; 59:43-47.
Dr. David 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.