The Medical Management of Atopic Dermatitis in Children

Pediatric Atopic Dermatitis: A Review of the Medical Management

Article by A. Carbone, A. Siu, and R. Patel in The Annals of Pharmacotherapy 2010 Volume 44:

The medical management of atopic dermatitis

This ‘website’ has an analytic program attached to it, Google Analytics (GA). With GA I get feedback regarding which pages or topics are viewed. Those topics that involve ‘Atopic Dermatitis’ (AD) are frequently looked at, indicating that this is an area of concern. This condition is of special interest to me and seemingly to many others. I participate along with Dr. Travers (dermatology) and Laura Dean (nutrition) in the Atopic Dermatitis Signature Center at Riley. So we (the team)  are constantly looking for new information and twists on old information to help children with this condition. The review posted here involves a critique on the medical management of atopic dermatitis. This appeared or will appear in the September 2010 journal The Annals of Pharmacotherapy. The authors are A. Carbone, A. Siu, and R. Patel from the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

The purpose of the paper

This was a review of the available medical treatment options for atopic dermatitis.


A review of the literature from 1950 to February 2010 was conducted using the key words ‘atopic dermatitis’. The search was restricted to articles that involved children <18 years of age and were written in English. The review was further refined with only articles that appeared in the literature within the past 5 years included. The authors also included articles that were older if they felt they were pertinent.

The reference list has 47 articles. The oldest article is from 1983.

Background Facts

This condition affects 17% of children. It most commonly starts at around 2-3 months of life. About half will declare themselves with the condition by their first year. Almost all will be diagnosed by age 5 years.

In this literature, the terms eczema and dermatitis are used interchangeably (and after the descriptor atopic).

The incidence of atopic dermatitis is increasing; the reason is unknown and theories abound.

There is no cure for atopic dermatitis. However, the incidence and prevalence decrease as the child ages.

Medical Management

There are a number of options here;

  •                 Non-pharmacologic
  •                 Pharmacologic

The non-pharmacologic treatments were not the focus of this paper but are worth mentioning. This is a multi-faceted condition. There is no ‘one’ thing, no ‘one’ golden treatment that takes care of it entirely. It is also recognized that each child will be different. So success in control involves many options that should be done together – the non-pharmacologic with the pharmacologic treatments.

Non-pharmacologic Treatment (individualized)

  •                 Removal of allergens
  •                 Identification of trigger factors
  •                 Balanced nutrition

Pharmacologic Treatments

  •                 Emollients- moisturizing agents
  •                 Topical Corticosteroids
  •                 Topical Calcineurin inhibitors
  •                 Systemic Treatments
  •                 Oral antihistamines
  •                 Bandages
  •                 Phototherapy
  •                 Bleach baths


These are moisturizing agents that work to inhibit water loss from the skin and provide a protective coating. There are a number of choices here; the first table in the paper lists 21 choices. The choice should be one that is unscented and a large amount should be used.

There are no recommendations regarding the amount and frequency of the use of emollients. There are also no studies that compare them to placebo.

These products are lotions, creams, and ointments. The active ingredients are mineral oil, petrolatum, ceramide, and urea.

The article (authors without conflict of interest) reviewed studies that involved Mimyx and Skin Barrier (EpiCeram).

Topical Corticosteroids

A table lists ‘some’ of these products. There were 67 topical steroids listed according to potency

  •                 Super-high
  •                 High
  •                 Medium-high
  •                 Medium
  •                 Medium-low
  •                 Low
  •                 Lowest

The side effects of these products included (noted as being rare if used properly);

  •                 Stinging
  •                 Thinning of the skin (atrophy)
  •                 Acne
  •                 Folliculitis (hair follicles become inflamed)
  •                 Bacterial infection of the skin
  •                 Hypertrichosis (increased hair)

For those children who have frequent flares (2-3 times per month) but are not currently active, the use of the topical steroids 1-2 days per week to frequently affected areas may help reduce flares.

The article talks about a few studies that compared topical steroids alone to topical steroids with emollients. There were also a number of studies that compared the various topical corticosteroids.

Topical Calcineurin Inhibitors

Tacrolimus and pimecrolimus (Protopic and Ellidel) work on specific cells of the immune system (T-cells) to decrease inflammation.

These agents have been recommended for children (>2 years of age) who do not respond to topical corticosteroids. They have also been recommend for  those with adverse reactions to the topical steroids or with irreversible skin atrophy (thinning). Facial eczema may also be a reason for considering these agents.

These agents are not to be considered first-line therapy. There are reports of associated malignancy (black box warning).

Systemic Treatments

Oral steroids have been used to treat this condition. There is improvement, however rebound flaring of the condition occurs often. The need to taper the oral steroid to prevent rebound was gone over with a number of examples of tapering when the exposure is 1 week, 1-2 weeks, or more than 1 month. The side-effects of the oral steroids include; adrenal suppression, growth suppression, glucose intolerance, and hypertension.

Oral Antihistamines

I think this is an area of great confusion. These agents may not relieve the itch or urticaria associated with atopic dermatitis. Supporting evidence in the literature regarding the efficacy of these agents in children is lacking (for relief of itching). However, the sedating effect of the antihistamine helps with a child’s sleep, specifically the quality of sleep.

Within this therapeutic category you would be seeking out antihistamines with sedating effects to help sleep. The new, non-sedating agents would not be viable choices since they lack to some degree that affect you seek- sedation. These agents also cost more than the older generation-sedating agents.

Pick an agent to help with sleep and use the product at night alone. The half-life of some of the anti-histamines is long enough for single or once a day dosing.


I have been more familiar with the wet bandage or wet wrap. This article reviewed the evidence for both dry and wet bandaging.

For the dry bandaging, there are no clinical trials that report their efficacy in the management of atopic dermatitis.  In theory, the dry bandage allow the emollients to remain on the site.

Wet wraps (bandages) can be used in children with extremely dry skin, severe atopic dermatitis, for exacerbations not well controlled by topical agents, or for those children who tend to scratch extensively at night.

In the literature reviewed for this article, clinical trials did not show any evidence that wet wraps is any better than conventional treatment with topical corticosteroids and emollients.


Listed as an option, however there is minimal information regarding its effectiveness.

Bleach Baths

Staphylococcal bacteria is on the skin of almost all of these children.  Oral antibiotics help to reduce the colonization of staphylococcus, however in this review  the evidence for clinical improvement is minimal.

The bleach bath is analogous to the chlorinated swimming pool. Studies have shown that this decreases the need for oral antibiotics.
Summary (author’s)

Children with atopic dermatitis are encouraged to;

  •                 Avoid triggers such as allergens and irritants
  •                 Maintain a balanced diet
  •                 Use emollients
  •                 Use topical corticosteroids- low strength with adjustments in potency as needed
  •                 Calcineurin inhibitors- for non-responders or children with adverse effects
  •                 Systemic oral corticosteroids- last resort
  •                 Anti-histamines for sleep, they may not help the itch
  •                 Phototherapy- when all else fails
  •                 Bandages- may work
  •                 Bleach baths- decrease severity

The health care professional taking care of the child needs to assess and consider the quality of life when deciding which treatment is appropriate.

Reviewer’s comments

We come across patients who have been on a wide array of therapies for atopic dermatitis and we come across a number of health care providers who swear by certain therapeutic approaches as if they were gospel. I have noted that there seems to be an inverse relationship between published studies on efficacy and the voracity with which a therapy is touted.

 I fully understand that some therapies work for individuals and I have no problem with setting on a course of therapy that may not have published evidence to support it, however I think that there should be defined clinical outcomes and timelines set to achieve those outcomes. As you can see from my numerous posts I do tend to be abide by what is evidence-based and if it is not evidence-based I explain that to the parents. I also go over the timeline for benefit, adverse effects, and I am conscious of the cost of the plan both in direct financial costs and on quality of life costs. Let us return to my review of the content of the article.

My background is in pharmacology- if things had gone a different way I would have had a career as a PhD in Pharmacology. I am very familiar with the journal  in which this article appeared.

I liked the comments on allergens which were to identify relevant allergens and help with avoidance measures.

Maintaining a balanced diet was mentioned a number of times. My guess is that this comes from concerns about allergy testing and applying those results as restrictive diets. After reviewing this work, I think we need something of quality on these non-pharmacologic treatment options.

I also liked the comments about the anti-histamines.  This suggests that we should go with the older, cheaper, agents that are associated with sedation. The child may need that. There is a current trend to use sedating antihistamines at night and non-sedating anti-histamines during the day. As medicine seemingly can go in circles and if you are old enough, you may see things pass by for a second time. When these new  anti-histamines (non-sedating) agents first appeared (you may remember Seldane), many third party payers balked at the expense and mandated that they would be okayed for daytime use but they would not pay for the second dose and suggested a first generation anti-histamine (over-the -counter). Studies appeared that concluded that this was not an effective form of treatment and side-effects still occurred during the day. It has been 15-20 years since I saw use and the advocating of two different anti-histamines. From pharmacologic standpoint, the histamine receptor is probably fairly well blocked with one agent. Ask why they (the antihistamines) are being used. Ask about the use of two agents. If they have been prescribed for itch, try it and see if it works and not, give it up. Most of the misery happens at night. Help the child sleep at night with the appropriate type of anti-histamine.

My take on the oral steroid is more cautious. Children have come to Riley who have been on oral steroids for this condition for months and even years. Yes it works, but look at the consequences and the risks; rebound, adrenal and growth suppression, glucose intolerance, and high blood pressure. Ask if other things have been tried. Consider asking for a referral to a center of excllence for the condition.

The allergy dogma (legacy) has been that those with atopic dermatitis do poorly in winter months and tend to do great in the summer. This paper offered two reasons for that observation. The summer reprieve  could be due to the sun and natural phototherapy along with a contribution to all those chlorinated swimming pools. Bleach baths may be akin to this to those swimming spots. The contemporary thoughts on pools/bathing is to encourage frequent use of water on the skin.

In the AD Signature Center we have been doing wet wraps. This article introduced dry bandages as an option. It also stated that wet/dry bandages/wraps use are without evidence to support efficacy.

Keep in mind that the treatment is very individualized. Find out what works and go with it.


July 18, 2010 · fleickly · No Comments
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