Conference Coverage

Pediatric pruritus requires distinct approach to assessment and management



Treating pruritus in children necessitates different approaches than those typically used to treat adult pruritus, Suephy C. Chen, MD, said at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Using special scales to measure itch in children and understanding that quality of life concerns may be different for children should also be kept in mind, said Dr. Chen, professor of dermatology at Emory University, Atlanta. Furthermore, several psychiatric comorbidities that have been associated with pediatric pruritus, such as ADHD and suicidal thoughts. Another consideration is that a child’s pruritus can have significant effects on his or her parents.

Measuring itch is challenging in children, who may have difficulty responding to visual analogue scales, verbal rating scales, and numerical rating scales. Dr. Chen and her colleagues developed the ItchyQuant scale as a self-report measure of itch severity (J Invest Dermatol. 2017 Jan;137[1]:57-61). It is a scale from 0 to 10 with cartoon illustrations depicting increasing itch severity, from no itch to the “worst itch imaginable.” Currently it is validated only in adults, but they are working towards getting it validated in children.

Another itch assessment scale for children, Itch Man, is available, but has only been studied in children who have survived burns.

The ItchyQOL scale measures the extent to which itch affects quality of life in adults. It examines the symptoms associated with itch, as well as its functional and emotional effects. But children’s concerns about quality of life are not the same as those of adults, so Dr. Chen and her colleagues used ItchyQOL as a basis for the “Tween ItchyQOL,” which is intended for children aged 8-17 years, and the “Kids ItchyQOL,” which is intended for children aged 6-7 years. The Tween ItchyQOL includes items (such as being made fun of) that are not in the ItchyQOL and eliminates items (such as working and spending money) that do not apply to children. The Kids ItchyQOL includes cartoons to help children understand the questions.

Dermatologists often use parents as proxies to measure their children’s itch, assuming that the latter’s responses might be unreliable. But when Dr. Chen and her colleagues administered the ItchyQuant to children with pruritus, parents, and their medical providers to evaluate the extent of agreement among assessors, they found that parents’ scores were higher than their children’s scores, although the difference was not significant.

Providers’ scores, however, were significantly lower than those of children and parents. All scores were in the moderate range. Dr. Chen and colleagues also found that, for each 1-point increase in the difference between children’s and parents’ responses, parents were 1.25 times less likely to have experience with chronic pruritus, outside of their children. This finding provides a gauge of how well a parent can serve as a proxy to characterize his or her child’s itch.

Adolescents are in general a troubled group, and caregivers have concerns about suicide in the adolescent population, Dr. Chen said. She referred to a large study of adolescents published in 2012, which indicated that the prevalence of suicidal ideation was 8.4% among adolescents with no itch, compared with 21.1% among adolescents with severe itch (Acta Derm Venereol. 2012 Sep;92[5]:543-6).

In the study, those with severe itch were three times more likely to have suicidal ideation than the general population, which Dr. Chen noted was comparable with that of suicidal ideation in patients with chronic pain in the study (odds ratio, 3.8).

Cross-sectional data suggest a link between itching and ADHD, but “it’s a chicken-and-egg phenomenon,” she said. “If you’re so itchy and squirmy, you’re not going to pay attention. Then again, if you’re not paying attention, maybe you’re that much more prone to scratch.” Longitudinal data indicate that improving itch correlates with improvement in ADHD symptoms.

In addition, pruritus affects the genders disproportionately. Girls report a significantly greater impact on quality of life than boys when itching is severe, with much of the difference in emotional impact, said Dr. Chen. Boys may report more functional impact than girls.

Chronic pruritus also affects parents, who may have disturbed sleep, feel stress about their own parenting, and have difficulty enforcing discipline. “They feel an incredible amount of guilt and blame for giving this to their child,” she commented. “As more and more places develop itch centers, it would be good to have a multidisciplinary approach bringing in mental health providers and social workers, because the impact of itch on parents can be quite profound.”

Dr. Chen reported disclosures with several companies, including BioPharmX, Dermecular Therapeutics, Leo Pharma, and Unilever.

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