Expert Shares Top Five Atopic Dermatitis–Related Questions He Fields

Doug Brunk

December 08, 2021

Will my child outgrow the eczema?

That is perhaps the No. 1 atopic dermatitis–related question that Lawrence F. Eichenfield, MD, fields from parents in his role as chief of pediatric and adolescent dermatology at Rady's Children's Hospital, San Diego.

Dr Lawrence Eichenfield

The answer "is pretty tricky," he said during MedscapeLive's annual Las Vegas Dermatology Seminar. "We used to say, 'yeah, your kid will probably outgrow the disease,' but we now have good data that show there are variable courses."

Using data from the birth study cohort known as the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, researchers in the United Kingdom investigated the existence of different longitudinal phenotypes of AD among 9,894 children. They found that 58% of the children in the cohort were unaffected or had transient AD, while 12.9% had early-onset/early-resolving AD. The remaining AD phenotypes consisted of 7%-8% patients each (early-onset persistent, early-onset late-resolving, mid-onset resolving, and late-onset resolving).

"There have been several studies that looked at the natural course of AD," said Eichenfield, distinguished professor of dermatology and pediatrics at the University of California, San Diego. "A cohort study from Thailand showed that 50% of patients with childhood AD lost their AD diagnosis about 5 years into it, while there was an increase in allergic rhino-conjunctivitis and asthma, similar to what's been seen in atopic march studies," he noted.

A separate group of investigators analyzed records from The Health Improvement Network in the UK to determine the prevalence of AD among more than 8 million patients seen in primary care between 1994 and 2013. They found that the cumulative lifetime prevalence of atopic eczema was 9.9% and the highest rates of active disease were among children and older adults. "The takeaway was markedly inconsistent in terms of whether AD went away over time or increased over time, so it's really not especially helpful prevalence data," Eichenfield said. "Overall, you have a high prevalence in the first years of life, it decreases, and it may increase again when people are 60 years and older. Whether that's truly AD or xerotic eczema isn't known in this data set."

A separate meta-analysis of 17 studies reported that 26% of adults with AD said they had adult-onset disease, which is characterized by more atopy, more foot dermatitis, and less flexural involvement.

Eichenfield tells parents, "there's a really good chance (depending on disease severity) that 60% to 70% of children will outgrow their eczema or most of it," he said. "If you ask me when, I won't tell you. The important thing is to treat it to minimize its impact. We want minimal rash, minimal itch, and minimal sleep disturbance. Sometimes I say, 'that might improve the chance of the eczema getting better over time.' "

Following are four other common questions parents and patients ask him:

Can we figure out the allergies causing the eczema? "This is probably one of the most unnerving questions I get asked," he said. "It's a loaded question. My answer is that allergies are intertwined with AD. Searching for the secret allergy causing the atopic dermatitis is rarely successful." Sensitization is much more common with AD, he added, meaning specific IgE testing, whether it be blood testing or skin prick testing. "The more severe your eczema is, the more chance you'll have of real food allergy," he said. "About 15% of milder eczema patients will have at least one food allergy, but when you get to the more moderate to severe cases, about 40% will have a true food allergy."

Food reactions may not cause eczema, though. Food reactions can cause urticaria, angioedema, eczematous dermatitis, allergic contact dermatitis, contact urticaria, and respiratory findings. According to National Institutes of Health guidelines for food allergy, skin prick tests and serum IgE tests are recommended to assist in identification of foods that may be provoking IgE-mediated food reactions, but are not diagnostic of food allergy.

"There's a huge literature showing that there's a lot of food allergy testing that's just not helpful," he said. In one study, 89% of food challenges administered in patients who were listed as being allergic based on skin prick tests or serum IgE tests did not have a true food allergy.

"Empiric elimination diets aren't especially useful. However, we occasionally see children who do have AD exacerbated by food allergies in the first year of life," he said. NIH guidelines suggest that children younger than 5 years of age with moderate to severe AD be considered for food allergy evaluation for milk, egg, peanut, wheat, and soy, if at least one of the following conditions is met: the child has persistent AD in spite of optimized management and topical therapy, and/or the child has a reliable history of an immediate reaction after ingestion of a specific food.

"We do know that there are high rates of comorbid allergic processes, besides food allergy, associated with atopic dermatitis, including allergic rhinitis and asthma both in children and adults," Eichenfield said. "I do discuss allergy triggers and their importance in the life of the individual, though not necessarily as factors in AD. There are a variety of environmental allergens and/or environmental triggers that can significantly impact AD. Recently, we have seen studies discussing air pollution and wildfires as exacerbators of AD."

How should I bathe and moisturize? There are no standard guidelines for the frequency, type, or duration of bathing in patients with AD, he said, though in more severe disease, frequent bathing can be helpful along with standard anti-inflammatory topical medicines. "I keep my general recommendations vague," Eichenfield said. "I do explain that we don't want to use harsh soaps; we want to be gentle in our washing. I usually recommend daily to every other day bathing. It's important to pat the skin dry and then apply a moisturizer. Applying a moisturizer 2-3 minutes after bathing is important and limited significant cleanser use can be helpful."

Moisturizers and emollients are a standard of care in U.S. guidelines published in 2013 and 2014, and international guidelines, and are steroid-sparing and useful for both prevention and maintenance. "I tell parents and patients that there is no reason to avoid bathing because of AD as long as you moisturize after," he said.

Do I have to use topical [name of drug]? "I try to explain that there is skin barrier dysfunction that stimulates the inflammatory milieu, and that inflammation in the skin or blood in AD negatively impacts skin barrier function," Eichenfield said. "I explain that if inflammation doesn't get better with good skin care, moisturizers, and avoidance of triggers, we need anti-inflammatory medication. Then we discuss what the options are, the significant variation in strengths of topical corticosteroids, and topical nonsteroid options."

When he counsels parents and patients on the use of topical corticosteroids, he tells them that cortisone is a naturally-occurring metabolite, and that "we can work together to let you know how much medicine to use, and how a safe amount is a powerful tool to fix the eczema." He often says that topical steroids "are like hammers. We have tiny hammers, like over-the-counter hydrocortisone, and sledgehammers like clobetasol. We also have 'screwdrivers' and 'pliers' with nonsteroidal topical calcineurin and PDE-4 inhibitors, which are especially useful for maintenance therapy. Topical ruxolitinib is a new medicine that we may use for patients as well. The label includes discussion of side effects from oral JAK inhibitors as well as from the drug development program, so it takes some time to talk through."

Is it time for a stronger systemic medicine? Any conversation about this topic should support the concept that the AD is multifactorial. "We have the rash of eczema," he said. "We have the itch. We have impact on sleep disturbance. We have the comorbidities. We have other physical changes, which can happen with bacterial infections and other immune system or cardiovascular changes. We have the impact on quality of life and impact on school and work. When we recognize that if patients have significant enough disease that it is not getting better with topicals and is having a negative impact on their lives, we can move our discussion to systemic therapy."

When counseling patients about systemic therapy, Eichenfield will conduct a body surface area assessment and document how bad the itch is. "But I'm not just recording the information; I'm bringing it out in the room," he said. "I'll do a BSA assessment and say, for example, 'oh, you have 32% of your body involved with eczema.' I ask about sleep disturbance, to get the answer 'out in the room.' " He also asks questions such as: "When was the last time your skin was last totally clear? Are there activities that you or your family don't do because of your eczema, or that you're living your life around it? Is there anxiety or depression?" Documenting both the impact on quality of life and the severity of disease "makes it easier to discuss systemic therapy," Eichenfield said. "Meanwhile, as the provider, I am trying to figure out if the patient should 'go into the topical therapy bucket' or into the 'systemic therapy bucket.' "

Counseling about systemic therapy includes shared decision-making regarding the choice of biologics versus oral JAK inhibitors versus traditional systemic agent or phototherapy. Factors to consider in the decision making include patient age, sex, severity, comorbidities, prior therapy, risk aversion, duration, medication access, and desired efficacy. "Evolving therapies can change the conversation, the questions, and the outcomes, but the overarching desired outcome is long-term disease control, minimal eczematous rash, minimal pruritus, and minimal sleep disturbance," he said.

Eichenfield disclosed that he has served as a consultant to or investigator for AbbVie; Almirall; Arcutis; Arena; Asana; Termagant; Dermira; Forte Biosciences; Galderma Laboratories; Glenmark/Chinos; Incyte; Kyowa Kirin; Leo Pharma; Eli Lilly and Company; Novartis; Ortho Dermatology; Otsuka; Pfizer; Freestone; Regeneron, and Sanofi Genzyme.

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