The most effective initial step for clearing atopic dermatitis in infants and young children involves daily bathing, followed by immediate application of a moisturizer, topical steroid, or both, according to an expert speaking at the virtual annual Coastal Dermatology Symposium.

Mother applying ointment to red scaly patch on baby's foot FotoDuets/iStock/Getty Images

“If they are really severe, you can do it twice-daily, but there are several studies that show there is not a huge benefit of twice-daily over once-daily,” said Eric Simpson, MD, professor of dermatology, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland.

He called this technique “soak-and-smear.” The “smear” is performed immediately after the bath when the skin is still damp, he said. When clearing is the goal, and the child has moderate to severe atopic dermatitis (AD), 0.1% triamcinolone or a similar medium potency topical steroid can be applied, and after clearing, the steroid can be switched for a moisturizer, according to Dr. Simpson.

Dr. Eric Simpson, department of dermatology, Oregon Health & Sciences Center, Portland

Dr. Eric Simpson

Rather than restricting application to areas of greatest skin involvement, “put it all over,” he advised.

The clearing regimen should be continued “for a couple of more days” after the lesions have resolved, with a return visit in about a week to confirm clearing and reinforce the next steps for keeping patients clear, he added.

The next steps depend on severity. According to Dr. Simpson, severity is defined less by the extent of skin involvement at the baseline examination than the speed at which symptoms return.

For those with only mild symptoms after an extended period of clearing, moisturizer might be sufficient to prevent a significant relapse. For children with a more rapid relapse, it will be necessary to reintroduce topical steroid either every day, every other day, or twice per week.

Whether with moisturizer or with topical steroids, the soak-and-smear technique has now been validated in a recently published crossover randomized trial.

In the trial, children aged 6 months to 11 years, with moderate to severe AD, were randomized to a twice-daily bath, called the “wet method,” versus a twice-weekly bath, called the “dry method.” Both groups received a cleanser and moisturizer along with a low-potency topical steroid as needed.

After 2 weeks, the 40 evaluable patients were crossed over to the opposite bathing technique. The wet, or soak-and-smear approach, was associated with a highly significant reduction in the primary endpoint of SCORing Atopic Dermatitis (SCORAD) index, compared with the dry method (95% confidence interval, 14.9-27.6; P less than .0001). In a secondary analysis, this translated into a 30% relative reduction in favor of the wet method.

In addition, there was improvement in a caregiver assessment of the Atopic Dermatitis Quickscore (ADQ). These data show that “twice-daily baths with topical steroids and moisturizer can help in more moderate to severe population,” said Dr. Simpson, who noted that he has participated in open-label studies with the same soak-and-smear technique that have produced similar results.

Once children are clear, Dr. Simpson recommends a maintenance strategy individualized for severity. In many cases, this will involve moisturizers applied after the bath, supplemented intermittently, such as once or twice per week, with topical steroids. However, if parents find themselves resorting to daily steroids to maintain control, “that’s when you incorporate the TCIs [topical calcineurin inhibitors].”

TCIs “can help you stay at twice-per-week topical steroids,” Dr. Simpson said at the meeting, jointly presented by the University of Louisville and Global Academy for Medical Education.

TCIs also help patients avoid steroid withdrawal, a particularly common phenomenon when topical steroids are applied repeatedly to the face. He recommended a proactive approach. By applying TCIs to areas where skin lesions frequently recur, such as the eyelids, flares can often be prevented.

Repeated applications of TCIs “is perfectly safe and effective, and there are many studies that show proactive treatment is very effective and can prevent you from having to use too much topical steroids” or move to a systemic steroid, Dr. Simpson said.

These steps have been highly effective for sustained control even in challenging cases of AD, but he emphasized the importance of explaining the rationale to parents and eliciting their adherence to these treatment steps. Writing out the instructions will reduce confusion and help parents keep their children clear, he added.

Lawrence F. Eichenfield, MD, professor of pediatrics and dermatology at the University of California, San Diego, agreed that this recently published crossover trial has been helpful in counseling parents about how to manage AD in their children.

Dr. Lawrence F. Eichenfield is the vice chair of the department of dermatology and a professor of dermatology and pediatrics at the University of California, San Diego

Dr. Lawrence F. Eichenfield

“Many times, pediatricians tell parents to avoid bathing because they feel that bathing will dry out the skin,” he said. The crossover study, by showing better control of AD with frequent bathing, dispels that notion, although he is not convinced that bathing at this frequency is necessary.

“I have not advised anyone to do twice-daily bathing, with rare exceptions, on the basis on this study, but, basically, I think that whether people do daily bathing or every other day bathing, it is pretty reasonable that bathing might help as long as they are applying moisturizer immediately afterward,” he said.

Dr. Simpson reports financial relationships with AbbVie, Celgene Dermira, Genentech, GlaxoSmithKline, Incyte, Lilly, Medimmune, Pfizer, Regeneron/Sanofi, and Tioga.

This publication and Global Academy for Medical Education are owned by the same parent company.