Clinical Review

Diet and Atopic Dermatitis

Author and Disclosure Information

Dermatologists and pediatric dermatologists frequently treat patients with atopic dermatitis (AD), and patients and guardians often associate AD with food allergies. A common misconception is that dietary restrictions will resolve the disease. The role of diet is evolving in the discussion of AD. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) has recently provided recommendations on diet and therapies for AD. This article reviews recent scientific data on the role of foods and dietary modifications in the management of AD as both an intervention and as prevention.

Practice Points

  • Test children younger than 5 years with moderate to severe atopic dermatitis (AD) for food allergies if they have persistently severe AD or known food-induced reactions.
  • Food elimination diets are not recommended for management of AD.
  • There is not enough evidence supporting the use of complementary and alternative medicine, probiotics/prebiotics, or supplements for the treatment of AD.



Atopic dermatitis (AD) is the leading diagnosis among pediatric dermatologists,1 and this condition is commonly seen worldwide by dermatologists and allergists.2 There is a widespread misconception held by many patients and their guardians who believe that AD is caused by a food allergy.3 Although AD is related to and part of the atopic complex of disorders associated with food allergies, the role of diet in AD is not well defined. Previously it was recommended to delay early exposure to foods, but now it is recommended to do the opposite in certain situations. In fact, delaying exposure to certain types of foods can increase the likelihood of food allergies (eg, early exposure to peanut butter lowers the statistical chance of developing peanut allergies). This article reviews recent data on the role of diet in AD regarding disease activity as well as new and emerging data on dietary modifications for prevention and intervention. Emerging data on the relationship between AD and food allergies also are presented.

Pathogenesis of AD

The skin barrier plays a vital role in the prevention of pathogens, allergen exposure, and sensitization. There is no solitary root cause of AD, rather it is a combination of inflammation and barrier dysfunction associated with allergic diathesis (eg, atopy). Many patients with AD, especially those with persistent disease, have an intrinsic barrier dysfunction as part of the root cause of their illness, which may be caused by genetically mediated filaggrin defects or alternative barrier dysfunction such as decreased ceramide content that predisposes to percutaneous and mucosal sensitization.4,5 Another source of percutaneous exposure to allergens is macroscopic breaks in the skin caused by scratching, which allows dendritic termini of Langerhans cells to be exposed to percutaneous antigens4,6 through binding to high-affinity IgE receptors.

Langerhans cells exposed to allergens can trigger either an immediate or delayed-type (type I or type II) reaction (sensitization phase) in the lymph node causing inflammatory activation (elicitation). Inflammatory activity in AD is broad and complex and includes the release of IL-4, elevated IgE levels, and eosinophilia, which trigger the helper T cell TH2 and TH17 cascade of cytokines, including IL-2, IL-4, IL-5, IL-8, IL-10, IL-13, IL-17α, tumor necrosis factor α, and IFN-γ,7-9 with the latter worsening barrier defect via downregulation of intercellular substances (eg, filaggrin) and intercellular adhesion expression (eg, claudin 1).6,7,10

Atopic dermatitis does not exist in isolation. The barrier dysfunction associated with AD allows for sensitization to allergens, including those found in food and/or the environment. The atopic march, which occurs via barrier abnormalities facilitating sensitization, can result in further atopy, such as food allergies, environmental allergies, asthma, and eosinophilic esophagitis.11

AD and Food Allergies

Many patients and guardians believe AD is caused by a food allergy and that diet restrictions will resolve the disease. Although the latter is not true, in reality many patients with AD do have food allergies. Approximately 40% of infants and young children with moderate to severe AD and 8% of the general population of children will manifest a specific IgE-based food allergy. Food-specific IgE can be triggered or exacerbated by AD through the induction of hives, cutaneous activation of mast cells, increased “spontaneous” basophil histamine release, and food-related lymphocyte-proliferative responses measurable by food patch testing.12 Allergists generally recommend avoidance of or use of heavily denatured food (in the case of a milk/egg allergy) in the setting of documented IgE-mediated allergens.13 Food allergies in AD can manifest with flares, hives, pruritus, and/or other cutaneous symptoms in the absence of flaring AD disease.

Guidelines from the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD)(Table) for the management of AD have recently recommended testing for food allergies in children younger than 5 years who have intractable AD or known food-induced reactions.14 This technique will largely identify children at risk for anaphylaxis but may not yield information contributing to AD improvement. Furthermore, withdrawal of allergens with known IgE-mediated response was classified by the AAD as having consistent good-quality patient-oriented evidence, and asking about allergic reactions as well as acting on a reported allergic history had inconsistent or limited-quality patient-oriented evidence. It is believed that atopy can progress, or march, into a food and/or environmental allergy at any point in life; therefore, testing for a food allergy should be considered in all patients with recent onset of severe and/or persistent AD and/or food-aggravated AD due to a lifetime risk of sensitization.14,15 A food introduction plan may require collaboration with an allergist, especially in high-risk patients (eg, those with known food reactions, family history of food allergies, severe atopy).


Next Article:

AAAAI: Early peanut consumption brings lasting protection from allergy

Related Articles