Most Clinicians Undertreat Childhood Lichen Sclerosus

Doug Brunk

August 11, 2020

In the clinical experience of Libby Edwards, MD, the diagnosis of lichen sclerosus in a young girl often triggers worry from patients and parents alike.

"The parents are worried about the ramifications of genital diseases and they're worried about scarring," she said during the virtual annual meeting of the Society for Pediatric Dermatology.

Dr. Libby Edwards

Meanwhile, during the initial assessment, physicians tend to think about sexual abuse or sexually transmitted diseases as the primary culprit. "It's really important that you consider those issues, but they're not usually what's going on," said Dr. Edwards, a dermatologist who practices in Charlotte, N.C. "Also, for some reason we jump to yeast as a cause of diseases in the genital area. If the child is out of diapers and hasn't reached puberty, it's almost never yeast. Do a culture. Try and prove yeast. If it doesn't respond to treatment for yeast, it's not going to be yeast. Reassure, and don't forget to reassure."

The causes of lichen sclerosus in young girls are not completely understood, she continued, but a main factor is autoimmune-related, which can cause a distinctive rash that usually affects the genital skin around the vulva and anus. Lichen sclerosus presents classically as white, fragile plaques. "Textbooks say that there is cigarette paper-like crinkling of skin," Dr. Edwards said. "I think of it being more like cellophane paper. In children, we often see it as smooth, kind of waxy and shiny, compared to adults. Children usually present with pruritus and irritation."

Lichen sclerosus often starts in the clitoral area and on the perineum, and often with an edematous clitoral hood. "It often eventuates into clitoral phimosis, meaning that there is midline adhesion so that the clitoris is buried," she said. "In adults, seeing this clitoral phimosis is a reliable sign of a scarring dermatosis – most often lichen sclerosus. But you can't say that in children, because little girls will often have scarring over the clitoris. It's just physiologic and means nothing, and it will go away at puberty. Certainly, sometimes this white discoloration can have crinkling. Purpura and tearing are common; if you look at lichen sclerosus histologically it looks like a thin epithelium that's stretched over gelatin. Any rubbing and scratching can cause bleeding in the skin."

Clinical appearance of well demarcated white skin with texture change drives the diagnosis. "It can be hard to tell from vitiligo at times, but there always should be texture change – whether it's crinkling, whether it's waxy, whether it's smooth – and it's symptomatic," she said.

A biopsy is not usually required. "I think a good picture [of the affected area] or some sort of objective description in the chart is important, because most children do so well that in a few months there's no sign of it, and the next provider [they see] may not believe that they ever had it," she said.

The recommended initial treatment for lichen sclerosus in girls is a tiny amount of a superpotent topical corticosteroid ointment such as clobetasol or halobetasol one to two times daily until the skin is clear, which usually takes 2-4 months. "You do not treat these children until they're comfortable, because that may be a week," Dr. Edwards said. "You treat these children until the skin looks normal. Then you need to keep treating them, because if you don't, the skin will relapse, even though they might not have symptoms."

Following initial treatment, she recommends use of a superpotent corticosteroid once per day three times a week, or a midpotency steroid like triamcinolone ointment 0.1% every day. In her clinical experience, if lesions clear and remain clear with long-term treatment through puberty, the chances are good that they'll stay clear if the medication is stopped.

"There are no studies on what to do after a patient clears," said Dr. Edwards, chief of dermatology at Carolinas Medical Center, Charlotte, and adjunct clinical professor of dermatology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "We have been informed by trial and error. If a child is totally clear after puberty, I will stop their medication and see them back every 3 months for about a year and a half. If they stay clear after a year and a half, I find that they stay clear. I wonder what happens at menopause. We surely don't know."

With consistent topical treatment, many patients will have clearing in one area of affected skin after a month or two, and it will take 3 or 4 months for the remaining area to clear. "I tend to see patients back every 6-8 weeks until they're clear," she said. "I do not like the idea of sending people out and saying, 'use this medication twice a day for a month, then once a day for a month, then three times a week, then as needed.'

For patients concerned about the long-term use of topical steroids, the immunosuppressants tacrolimus and pimecrolimus are options. "They are often irritating on the vulva, but can work better than steroids for extragenital disease," Dr. Edwards said. "Parents sometimes object to the use of a corticosteroid, but because these produce slower benefit and often burn with application, you can remind the parents that tacrolimus and pimecrolimus are not without side effects and are labeled as being associated with cancer. That often will prompt a parent to be willing to use a topical steroid. You can also point to studies that show the safety of topical steroids."

Intralesional steroids are useful for thick lesions, but Dr. Edwards said that she has never had to use them in a child with lichen sclerosus. "I have found methotrexate to be useful in some people, but there is not one study on genital lichen sclerosus and methotrexate," she said. "I find that about one in five patients with recalcitrant vulvar lichen sclerosus has had some benefit from methotrexate," she added, noting that fractional CO2 laser "is showing promise in these patients."

Dr. Edwards concluded her remarks by noting that she has never cared for a child with vulvar lichen sclerosus who didn't respond to topical super potent steroids, "except due to poor compliance."

She reported having no relevant financial disclosures.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com.

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