It’s common knowledge that infants are more prone to illnesses and ailments than older children and adults. This is mostly because their immune systems aren’t quite fully developed yet, and certain ailments they face are particularly due to hyperactivity of the immune system.
One of such is eczema, an inflammatory skin condition that affects over 9 million children in the US alone.
Not only do these little ones have to experience the drying, itchy, crusty symptoms that come with the condition, they are also often prone to other disorders like food allergy (FA), hay fever, and asthma.
Researchers at three institutions Stanford Medicine, University of Chicago, and National Jewish Health, are conducting a study to see if a proactive skin treatment in early infancy can reduce eczema (red, itchy rash) flares, and hence, prevent the development of food allergies.
Let's take a look into what causes infant eczema and allergies, and how scientists hope to reduce the skin disorder and prevent development other allergic conditions.
Prevalence of Baby Eczema
Most cases of eczema first manifest before a child is even five years old. As early as infancy, children may experience dry skin, red and itchy patches, and even crusty or scaly areas of skin irritation.
If left untreated, these symptoms can develop into full-blown atopic dermatitis–a common form of eczema, most frequently observed in children and infants and is characterized by periodic flare-ups of red patches and itchy skin, typically on the face or limbs.
International studies have found the rate of atopic dermatitis in infants and toddlers to be as high as 20.5% in some places.
A previous study of affected children found that the first appearances of atopic dermatitis occurred before five years old in 85% of participants. Of that, 45% first showed symptoms at under 6 months old, and 60% developed the disorder within their first year.
Although the disease can clear up over time, studies found that less than half of those affected outgrow it by age seven. However a whopping 20-40% carry their symptoms into their adult life. Factors that determine who grows out of the disease may be genetic or environmental, although researchers are still unsure of the exact causes.
It’s unclear what the exact cause of eczema is but genetic and environmental factors play a major role.
Eczema can generally be treated using topical creams, maintaining good hygiene, and avoiding known allergens, but there is currently no known definite cure.
Infant and Childhood Allergies and Eczema
Baby eczema can often be a precursor for food allergies and other conditions like asthma due to activation of the immune system. Research has shown that by scratching the irritated skin, as young children often do, they breach the skin barrier and trigger an immune response. Further breach of the barrier, by food particles in particular, can trigger an allergy to the breaching particle. Over-activation of the immune system in this way can also lead to respiratory disorders like hay fever and asthma. The common progression of these disorders is known as the atopic march.
What Is Atopic March?
The term “atopic march” refers to the progression of atopic disorders from the early stages of atopic dermatitis in infancy through the development of allergic rhinitis and asthma typically by age three.
Atopic dermatitis is one of the major risk factors involved in the development of childhood asthma and hay fever. The more severe a child’s eczema is, the more likely they are to develop allergic rhinitis. The correlation is so strong that around 70% of patients with atopic dermatitis classified as severe will go on to develop asthma. Of those with only mild eczema, around 20 to 30% will progress into asthma, while only 8% of those with no eczema at all will develop the disease.
Eczema is also strongly correlated with the development of food allergies. As with allergic rhinitis, the more severe the eczema case, the more likely the child is to develop allergies and the more severe those allergies may be. Studies found a further correlation between these food allergies and the likelihood of developing asthma.
The underlying factor in all of these disorders, atopy, is the genetic likelihood that a person will develop sensitivity and produce certain antibodies when common environmental antigens breach the skin barrier. Children with severe atopic dermatitis who are more likely to develop asthma are also more likely to have higher levels of these antibodies. The connection seems to be found in the immune response triggered by breaches of the skin via irritation or itching.
Hope for Babies with Eczema and Allergies
Understanding the connection between eczema, food allergies, and other allergic conditions helped researchers kickstart a study designed to find out if treating skin irritation in infants could prevent the development of eczema, allergies, and other related conditions by repairing dry skin before it could be damaged further.
The purpose of the research study was to find a safe, cost-effective way to reduce the prevalence of eczema and allergies among young children. By treating the theoretical cause of these disorders–dry skin–in infants they hope to stop the atopic march from progressing into its later stages. By using proactive treatments instead of reactive ones to disrupt the atopic march, scientists are hoping to nearly eliminate childhood allergies and reduce the severity of childhood eczema.
The significance of this study is in its potential to reduce the prevalence of food allergies in children. These can be potentially life-threatening conditions in severe cases, so preventing them is ideal.The study may also help to confirm or disprove some of our theories about how these disorders develop.
For more information or participation details of the research study, visit their study website:
California: Stanford Medicine
Chicago: University of Chicago
Colorado: National Jewish Health
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