HOUSTON (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS)Dermatologists, allergists, and other physicians treating children with extremely refractory forms of atopic dermatitis (AD) must be aware of common treatment and management pitfalls before jumping to immunosuppressant or biologic therapies, says pediatric eczema researcher Dr. Donald Y. M. Leung, particularly as this is a patient group for whom no systemic therapies have been approved.

In a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, Dr. Leung shared insights from his clinical experience at National Jewish Health in Denver, whose pediatric eczema program represents a national referral center for patients with severely refractory disease and their families.

“As managed care continues to march on, you will be faced with taking care of the more difficult patients,” Dr. Leung told clinicians.“You will see all forms of AD in clinical practice, therefore one size does not fit all, and a stepwise approach is needed to [treat] the different forms of eczema.”

Clinicians first need to determine what step, or grade, of eczema a patient has. For example, step 2 and 3 eczema is characterized by moderate disease not controlled by intermittent use of topical steroids or calcineurin inhibitors.

National Jewish Health’s day-based program aims to first clear up children presenting with severe eczema before clinicians attempt diagnostic testing. This is achieved through the use of wet wraps, until skin has healed enough for testing to begin.

With wet wraps and day hospitalization, “you can go from severe to mild within a few days,” Dr. Leung said. For children who do not improve after the wet wraps, ruling out immune deficiency or other diagnoses is key. Dr. Leung and colleagues look for Dock 8 (dedicator of cytokinesis 8) protein deficiency in children who fail to respond to wet-wrap treatment, especially if they have presented with recurrent herpes infections or persistent warts.

Another important function of the day program is to observe how parents manage children with eczema. Many, Dr. Leung said, turn out to be noncompliant with recommendations on bathing and medications, often because of the discomfort it causes the child. The monitoring is essential to reveal errors in care. “You can’t tell this in a 10-minute office visit,” he said.

A top reason children fail therapy, he said, is because parents misinterpret recommendations on applying medicine after bathing. Many think that after applying a topical medication, “you can get better absorption if you put the moisturizer on top of the topical steroid. That really just dilutes the medication and you get ineffective therapy.”

Another upshot of the monitoring is that clinicians can identify parents suffering from depression, stress, or financial problems that prevent them from complying. “As with asthma, psychosocial factors loom big,” he said. Parents are extensively counseled and referred as needed, he said. Children also can be trained not to scratch their skin, and children over 5 years in the eczema program are offered hypnosis and biofeedback training to learn how to control their response to itching.

When taking a history of suspected food reactions, Dr. Leung said, it’s important to note that only hives and anaphylaxis are clearly linked to food allergy. “Skin testing and blood work is what we all do, but that’s helpful only if negative. If it’s positive, it still doesn’t tell you that they have food-induced eczema, and like it or not, some form of the food challenge is necessary.”

Dr. Leung said it is appropriate to conduct some oral food challenges unblinded after a negative test. “If a test is positive, and the parent insists that this food may cause eczema, it’s often necessary to do a double-blind, placebo-controlled test,” he said, which is the gold standard.

In discussing systemic therapies, Dr. Leung noted that general immunosuppressants were an approach favored by dermatologists, but urged caution with regard to interferons, mycophenolate, methotrexate, azathioprine, and cyclosporin A. “These are expensive therapies not approved in children, and you really need very good documentation that they’ve failed other forms of therapy before you’d move to that,” Dr. Leung said.

Oral steroids should be avoided. “I have seen thousands of cases of severe eczema, and I’ve never put somebody on oral steroids unless they happened to have an asthma exacerbation concurrent with AD,” he said. “This is because they often have rebound within a week of stopping oral steroids, and that rebound can be worse than the disease you started with.”

If oral steroids must be used, “you should taper slowly and increase the intensity of skin care, so they don’t have a severe rebound.”

Dr. Leung said that while omalizumab should work in any disease with an elevated serum IgE level, “more often than not it doesn’t,” and it probably should be reserved for patients with a very clear history of allergen-induced eczema, underlying urticaria, or other forms of respiratory allergy that may be triggering asthma.

Two potential approaches in which allergists and dermatologists can work together, Dr. Leung said, are phototherapy and allergy immunotherapy. The latter is controversial in AD, he acknowledged, “but if somebody has mainly dust mite allergy or is monosensitized, it’s more likely you will get good benefit. If they’re polysensitized, it is unlikely because it’s mainly a barrier problem.”

Dr. Leung did not recommend antibiotics except in the case of overt Staphylococcus aureus infection, so as not to select for methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA). “If you’re going to treat with some regimen, keep in mind that staph comes from the nose; that’s the body’s reservoir. You should always use an intranasal Bactroban [mupirocin] along with a systemic antibiotic.” Effective eradication of MRSA infection requires more drastic measures, including treatment of other family members and pets.

Dr. Leung disclosed doing consulting work for Celgene, Novartis, Regeneron, and Sanofi-Aventis, and a research grant from Horizon Pharma.