Atopic Dermatitis Doubles Risk of Mental Health Issues in Children

Ted Bosworth

September 09, 2021

Children with severe atopic dermatitis (AD) are about twice as likely to develop depression and internalizing behavior as those without this condition, according to a newly published cohort study of more than 11,000 children between the ages of 3 and 18 years.

Along with previous studies that have also linked AD to depression and other mental health issues in children, these data highlight the need for "clinical awareness of the psychosocial needs of children and adolescents with AD," reported a multicenter team of investigators from the University of California, San Francisco, the University of Pennsylvania, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Unlike some previous studies, in this study, published online in JAMA Dermatology on Sept. 1, children were evaluated longitudinally, rather than at a single point in time, with a mean follow-up of 10 years. For those with active AD, compared with children without AD, the odds ratio for depression overall in any child with AD relative to those without AD was not significant after adjustment for variables such socioeconomic factors.

However, among children with severe AD, the risk was more than twofold greater even after adjustment (adjusted OR, 2.38; 95% confidence interval, 1.21- 4.72), reported the investigators, led by senior author Katrina Abuabara, MD, associate professor of dermatology and epidemiology at UCSF.

Internalizing Symptoms Seen With Mild to Severe AD

Internalizing behavior, which is closely linked to depression and describes a spectrum of inward-focusing activities, such as social withdrawal, was significantly more common in children with any degree of AD relative to those without AD: After adjustment, the risk climbed from a 29% increased risk in those with mild AD (aOR, 1.29; 95% CI, 1.06-1.57) to a more than 80% increased risk in children with moderate AD (aOR, 1.84; 95% CI, 1.40-2.41) and in children with severe AD (aOR, 1.90; 95% CI, 1.14-3.16).

In the study, depression was measured with the Short Moods and Feelings Questionnaire (SMFQ). Parental response to the Emotional Symptoms subscale of the Strength and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) was used to measure internalizing behaviors.

The data were drawn from the Avon Longitudinal Study for Parents and Children (ALSPAC), a cohort that enrolled pregnant women in a defined area in southwest England and then followed children born from these pregnancies. Of the 14,062 children enrolled in ALSPAC, data from 11,181 children were available for this study.

In a previous meta-analysis of studies that have documented a link between AD and adverse effects on mood and mental health, an impact was identified in both children and adults. In children, AD was associated with a 27% increase in risk of depression (OR, 1.27; 95% CI, 1.12 -1.45). In adults, the risk was more than doubled (OR, 2.19; 95% CI, 1.87-2.57). The same meta-analysis found that the risk of suicidal ideation among adolescents and adults with AD was increased more than fourfold (OR, 4.32; 95% CI, 1.93-9.66).

In the ALSPAC data, the investigators were unable to find compelling evidence that sleep disturbances or concomitant asthma contributed to the increased risk of depression, which is a mechanism proposed by past investigators.

In an interview, Abuabara said that these and other data provide the basis for encouraging clinical awareness of the psychological needs of children with AD, but she suggested there is a gap in understanding what this means clinically. "We need more data on how dermatologists can effectively screen and manage these patients before we try to set expectations for clinical practice," she said.

In addition, these data along with previously published studies suggest that change in mental health outcomes should be included in the evaluation of new therapies, according to Abuabara. She noted that there are several tools for evaluating mental health in children that might be appropriate, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.

"Ideally, recommendations would be issued through a group consensus process with patients, clinicians, researchers, and industry representatives working together as has been done for other outcomes through the Harmonizing Measures for Eczema (HOME) group," Abuabara said.

Mental Health Assessments Recommended

Others who have looked at the relationship between AD and depression have also recommended adding mental health outcomes to an assessment of efficacy for AD therapies.

Jonathan I. Silverberg, MD, PhD, MPH, associate professor of dermatology, George Washington University, Washington, is one such investigator. He is already monitoring depression systematically with the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS).

"HADS has been validated in AD and provides very important information about the emotional burden of AD," explained Silverberg, whose most recent article on this topic appeared earlier this year. In that study, the relationship between AD and depression was found to be more pronounced in White children from families with lower incomes.

"Just a few hours ago, one of my patients thanked me for asking about their mental health and recognizing the holistic effects of AD," Silverberg said.

The recent study based on ALSPAC data add to the evidence that AD, particularly severe AD, produces deleterious effects on mental health in children, and Silverberg believes clinicians should be acting on this evidence.

"I strongly encourage clinicians to routinely assess mental health. It will elevate the quality of care they provide, and their patients will appreciate them more for it," he said.

Abuabara and another author report receiving research funding from Pfizer to their universities for unrelated work; there were no other disclosures. Silverberg reports financial relationships with more than 15 pharmaceutical companies.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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