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Complications of atopic dermatitis

Author: Dr Amy Stanway, Department of Dermatology, Waikato Hospital, February 2004

Psychosocial effects of atopic dermatitis

Any chronic illness can have a major impact on the sufferer's life, and this is particularly so for childhood eczema, as well as on the lives of their families. Most people with eczema continue to lead normal lives but for a few, the eczema can be a source of major psychosocial distress.

Young children often suffer sleep disturbances which are difficult for parents and may cause behavioural problems in the child. Older children may become shy and withdrawn due to the embarrassment of a visible skin condition. Activities such as sport, school camps and swimming may have to be restricted, which further alienates the child. Long absences from school may result from both the eczema itself, and from the social avoidance that develops in some children.

Adults may also suffer shyness and withdrawal due to the appearance of the eczema. Work may be difficult and some people with bad eczema will have to change jobs to cope with their eczema.

Retarded growth due to atopic dermatitis

Severe eczema may slow the growth rate in children. This is most often due to the eczema rather than its treatment. Corticosteroids, particularly oral corticosteroids, can also cause short term growth retardation, so use of these drugs is closely monitored.

Bacterial infections in atopic dermatitis

Bacterial infection is extremely common in atopic dermatitis. This is usually with staphylococcal or streptococcal bacteria (see staphylococcal skin infections and streptococcal skin infections). People who have atopic dermatitis are particularly prone to skin infections. This is in part due to the breaks in the skin from very dry, split skin and from scratching the itchy areas. People with atopic dermatitis also seem to have a reduced ability to fight against these common bacteria on the skin. As a result people with atopic dermatitis frequently suffer from boils, folliculitis and infections of their eczema. This begins a viscious cycle as infection causes the eczema to worsen and become more resistant to the usual treatment with emollients and topical steroids. Antibiotics are often required to eliminate the infection before the eczema can once more be brought under control.

Rarely, bacterial infection can be especially severe, involving much of the skin surface. This can cause blood poisoning (septicaemia) and require hospital admission. Infants are particularly at risk of severe skin infections.

Viral infections in atopic dermatitis

Viral infections, in particular herpes simplex virus (the virus that causes cold sores and genital herpes), is moe common in patients with atopic dermatitis. A herpes simplex infection can spread rapidly in the presence of eczema and cause a severe infection known as eczema herpeticum. This may present as a generalised illness with fever, malaise and a widespread crusted, blistering rash. It can also be more localised, often confined to areas with active eczema. A history of a recent coldsore in the affected individual or a close contact is useful in making the diagnosis before swab results become available. Because of the severity of the condition, treatment with oral antiviral agents such as aciclovir is often started before any swab results are available.

Molluscum contagiosum is another common viral skin infection, seen particularly in children. It may be more common in people with atopic dermatitis. Molluscum infection often causes an increase in eczema symptoms, usually worst around the areas affected with molluscum. Molluscum lesions often resolve more slowly in people with atopic dermatitis and the eczema may continue to be more active until the molluscum finally disappears. Resolution can be hastened by mild traumatising of one or two molluscum lesions at a time to generate an inflammatory response. This can be done by quick pinching with clean tweezers of one or two lesions each night for a few nights. This is usually better tolerated if done while the child is asleep.

Erythrodermic atopic dermatitis

Erythroderma is a generalised redness of the skin. It is a very severe skin condition that can be fatal. It is caused by a number of conditions including eczema, psoriasis, other inflammatory skin conditions, drugs and malignancies.

Erythrodermic eczema usually occurs in patients with worsening or unstable eczema. Treatment of erythroderma is similar despite the many underlying causes. Inpatient hospital treatment is usually required to cool the skin and support the hydration and temperature control of the affected individual. Skin infection is also common in the setting of erythrodermic eczema and intravenous antibiotics are commonly given for a period of time. Treatment for erythrodermic eczema may include:

Complications of erythroderma include:

Eye abnormalities associated with atopic dermatitis

Many eye changes may be seen in association with atopic dermatitis.

A Dennie-Morgan fold is a fold of skin under the lower eyelid. Due to chronic eyelid dermatitis, it is often seen in atopic dermatitis but may also be seen independent of atopic dermatitis and is of no significance to the overall health of the person.

Conjunctival irritation is also common. It may be due to an allergic reaction, as in hayfever, or an irritant response.

Keratoconus (conical-shaped eyeball) is a rare condition which is occasionally associated with atopic dermatitis. It is due to degeneration and weakening of the cornea (the front of the eye) which results in pushing of the front of the eye outwards due to the normal pressure within the eyeball. It can result in marked visual disturbances and can be partially corrected by contact lenses. Onset of keratoconus is after childhood and progression is usually self-limited.

Cataracts can also occur in association with severe atopic dermatitis, usually around 15-25 years of age. They are almost always bilateral and may have a characteristic appearance on eye examination which helps distinguish them from other causes of cataract.

Retinal detachment is when part of the inner eye lining breaks away from the underlying structures. This is a very rare complication seen in association with atopic dermatitis.

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