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Dermatologists Caution That Atopic Dermatitis is a Strong Precursor to Food Allergies

Posted: March 7, 2011

Atopic dermatitis, one of the most common forms of eczema in this family of inflammatory skin diseases, is a chronic disease marked by red, cracked and itchy skin. Now, increasing evidence indicates atopic dermatitis is a precursor to allergic diseases rather than a consequence. Dermatologists are advising parents of infants and young children affected by this common skin condition to be aware of the potential for future food allergies.

Speaking at the 69th Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology (Academy), dermatologist Jon M. Hanifin, MD, FAAD, professor of dermatology at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, discussed the link between atopic dermatitis and food allergies, as well as the new food allergy guidelines issued in December 2010 by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

“Considering that 6–10% of children have atopic dermatitis and that up to one-third of those individuals may have documented food allergy, the number of these children affected by food allergies may be significant,” said Hanifin. “In most cases, patients experience atopic dermatitis before food allergies, so it is important for parents of infants and small children affected by this skin condition to be aware of the risk of food allergies.”

A recent five-year multicenter study conducted by Hanifin and others in babies age three to 18 months found that even in reported mild cases of atopic dermatitis, roughly 15% of infants had definite food allergies. Hanifin further explained that patients with more severe cases of atopic dermatitis generally have a higher incidence of developing food allergies. Although this study and others confirm the strong correlation between atopic dermatitis and food allergies, proper testing for a food allergy—as recommended in the new guidelines—is critical in determining if an actual food allergy exists.

The new NIAID food allergy guidelines clearly define a food allergy as an adverse health event that stems from an immunologic reaction upon exposure to a specific food. Typically, a food allergy occurs rapidly (within 30 minutes from the time a person is exposed to the food), with skin symptoms such as hives and itching of the lips. More severe reactions may include respiratory, gastrointestinal or anaphylaxis problems that could be potentially very dangerous.