Myth: Children eventually outgrow atopic dermatitis and therefore do not need treatment
The negative impact of atopic dermatitis (AD) on quality of life in the pediatric population often prompts parents/guardians to inquire about whether a child with AD will ever outgrow their disease. If remission is expected as the child gets older, many may question if it is necessary to pursue treatment or just let the disease run its course. Although AD often is reported to resolve soon after the first decade of life, symptoms can persist well into the second decade and beyond, suggesting that AD may be a lifelong disease with periods of waxing and waning symptoms that require persistent treatment throughout the patient’s life.
A 2014 study included 7157 children with AD (mean age of disease onset, 1.7 years) who were enrolled in the Pediatric Eczema Elective Registry (PEER) program between the ages of 2 and 17 years with measurement of disease activity at regular 6-month intervals for up to 5 years. The study results indicated that more than 80% of patients at every age (age range, 2–26 years) had symptoms of AD and/or were using medication to treat their disease, and the majority (64%) of patients had never reported a 6-month period during which they achieved clearance of symptoms without medication. At the age of 20 years, 50% of patients reported at least 1 lifetime 6-month period during which they were both symptom and treatment free. In another study of adolescents with AD who also had AD in childhood (N=82), 48% of patients remained in the same AD severity grades and 13% deteriorated from childhood to adolescence; only 39% of patients showed improvement in disease severity from childhood to adolescence. The findings of these reports are contradictory to conventional clinical teaching, which indicates that AD generally resolves by age 12 in 50% to 70% of children.
Even though some children with AD may experience periods of disease clearance, these findings often do not persist and should not be confused with a permanent remission. Most patients require continued treatment with medications to achieve relief of symptoms. Therefore, physicians should not assure parents/guardians that a child can outgrow AD; rather, they should educate pediatric patients and their caregivers about the potentially lifelong disease course and encourage early intervention to mitigate symptoms and manage comorbidities as the patient ages.