Conference Coverage

Eczema increases the risk of impaired mental health among children



Eczema is an independent risk factor for mental health impairment among American children, according to an analysis described at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology. Eczema appears to influence several domains of mental health, and the association remains in the absence of other atopic illnesses.

Estimates of the prevalence of eczema in children have ranged as high as 20%. European and Japanese studies have suggested that children with eczema have greater mental health impairments overall, but researchers have not evaluated this association among U.S. children. Although it has been established that children with eczema consult health care providers more often than children without eczema, data on health care utilization among children with eczema and impaired mental health are limited.

Joy Wan, MD, a dermatologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and her colleagues performed a cross-sectional analysis of data obtained from 2013 to 2017 by the National Health Interview Survey. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention administers the survey to a representative sample of the U.S. population. Children in each household are randomly sampled, and adult caregivers provide detailed health information about them.

Dr. Wan and her colleagues included children aged between 4 and 17 years in their analysis. The exposure of interest was eczema. Caregivers reported eczema in response to the question, “During the past 12 months, has the child had eczema or any kind of skin allergy?” The study’s primary outcome was mental health impairment. Using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ), the investigators categorized mental health impairment as none, mild, or severe. The SDQ is a validated instrument that assesses symptoms of mental health in children in domains such as conduct, emotion, peer relationships, and attention, which the researchers chose as secondary outcomes of interest. Dr. Wan’s group also examined the utilization of mental health and other health and social services among children with eczema.

The researchers performed logistic regression analysis to obtain odds ratios for mental health impairment among children with eczema, adjusting the analysis for potential socioeconomic and demographic confounders. Furthermore, they stratified the primary model by other atopic and behavioral disorders to assess for potential effects modification by these concomitant illnesses.

Approximately 12% of the children in the sample had eczema. Children with eczema tended to be female, non-Hispanic, or black; they also were more likely to report good, fair, or poor health, compared with children without eczema. Asthma, allergic rhinitis, and ADHD were more common among children with eczema than those without.

About 27% of children with eczema had any mental health impairment, compared with approximately 18% of children without eczema. About 11% of children with eczema had severe impairment; this rate was almost twice as high as that in children without eczema, Dr. Wan said. The adjusted odds of mental health impairment were 52% per year among children with eczema, compared with those without.

When the researchers examined specific domains of mental health, they found that children with eczema were significantly less likely to be reported to be well behaved or to have good attention spans. They also were significantly more likely to worry often, be unhappy or depressed, and to get along better with adults than their peers.

When Dr. Wan and his colleagues stratified the primary model by other atopic illnesses, they found that, among children without any other atopic illness, eczema remained independently associated with mental health impairment (OR, 1.52). The effect remained similar among children with asthma alone, but was attenuated among children with allergic rhinitis alone or with asthma and allergic rhinitis.

In the absence of ADHD, the investigators found a statistically significant effect of eczema on mental health impairment (OR, 1.46). In the presence of ADHD, the effect remained significant, but was attenuated.

Finally, approximately 20% of children with mildly impaired mental health had seen a mental health professional in the past year. In addition, 54% of children with severe mental health symptoms had seen a mental health professional in the past year. Among children with severe impairment, about 80% had consulted a general practitioner in the past year; 45% of them reported emotional or behavioral issues as the reason for the visit. Use of special education and early intervention services were more prevalent among children with increasing degrees of mental health impairment.

The study’s strengths include its population-based design, the use of a validated psychometric instrument, and the adjustment of data for socioeconomic factors and other comorbid illnesses, Dr. Wan said. The study is cross sectional, however, which precludes conclusions about the directionality of the relationship between eczema and mental health. In addition, the SDQ may not capture all mental health symptoms that eczema affects.

It is imperative that clinicians and caregivers recognize how common mental health impairment is among children with eczema so that children can be appropriately screened and referred for care, Dr. Wan said. “Our study suggests that there may be a critical gap in mental health services utilization by children who have eczema and concomitant mental health impairment. Some of the future directions in this area may be to understand the potential barriers to mental health care in children with eczema, and certainly to identify potentially effective interventions to reduce the mental health burden in pediatric eczema.”

Dr. Wan reported receiving research fellowship funding from Pfizer.

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