From Our 2009 Archives
Can Chinese Herbs Relieve Eczema?
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Chinese Herbal Medicine May Offer Relief for Dry, Itchy Skin of Eczema, Studies Say
By Charlene Laino
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
March 17, 2009 (Washington, D.C.) -- Traditional Chinese herbal medicine may help to relieve the dry, itchy, scaly skin of eczema in children and adults, two new studies suggest.
Other research shows that toddlers who have egg, elm, or cat allergies are at increased risk of developing eczema by age 4. Children whose parents have eczema are also at risk.
All three studies were presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
Chinese Herbal Medicine Safe, Effective in Children
As many as 30% of patients with eczema have been prescribed traditional Chinese medicine, but there are still questions about whether it works and is safe, says researcher Julia Wisniewski, MD, of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
There is clearly a need for alternative treatments for the skin condition, she says, because many patients with severe allergies continue to have flare-ups a decade after standard therapy with steroids and immune-suppressing agents.
Wisniewski and colleagues studied 14 children with persistent eczema who were treated with traditional Chinese medicine at Ming Qi Natural Health Center in Manhattan between August 2006 and May 2008.
All of them drank Erka Shizheng Herbal Tea twice a day and soaked in an herbal bath for 20 minutes daily. They also applied an herbal cream to their skin two or three times a day and had acupuncture treatment.
At the start of the study, more than half of the participants had severe symptoms on a standard scale that doctors use to gauge eczema severity. After eight months of treatment, most had mild symptoms.
"Improvement in symptoms and quality of life was seen as early as three months," Wisniewski says. She showed before-and-after photos of several children to document their progress: Red, scaly feet and hands appeared normal six months into therapy.
Participants also reported a reduction in the use of steroids, antibiotics, and antihistamines within three months of being treated with traditional Chinese medicine.
The herbal treatments proved safe, with no abnormalities in liver and kidney function observed, Wisniewski adds.
"Chinese medicine is a very good alternative to conventional therapy for children with eczema," she says.
Chinese Herbal Medicine Also Helps Adults With Eczema
Adults with eczema also can benefit from traditional Chinese medicine, Japanese researchers report.
They studied 274 men and women who had suffered from eczema for an average of 12 years. Nearly one-third had severe or very severe symptoms, with patches of chronically itchy, dry, inflamed skin over at least 10% of their body.
"Medicinal Chinese herbal remedies were selected and administered in accordance with the sufferer's symptoms -- an approach known as Sho in oriental medicine," says Yoshiteru Shimoide, MD, head of the Yoshiteru Shimoide Clinic of Internal Medicine in Kagoshima City.
After 3-4 months of treatment, 87% of the patients were symptom-free. An additional 12% markedly improved, he tells WebMD.
One patient showed mild abnormalities in liver function, which were alleviated by stopping the herbal therapy.
Experts say more study is needed.
"While the findings are promising, I wouldn't recommend [traditional Chinese medicine] at this point," says Mitchell Grayson, MD, associate professor of pediatric allergy and immunology at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.
Grayson tells WebMD that larger, longer studies comparing herbal treatments to standard therapy or placebo are needed.
If you do decide to seek out complementary or alternative medicines, speak with your doctor first, he advises.
Eggs, Cat Allergies Are Risk Factors for Childhood Eczema
To find out risk factors for developing childhood eczema, University of Cincinnati researchers followed 636 infants of parents with allergies.
By age 4, babies whose parents had eczema had more than double the risk of having eczema than other children. Those who tested positive for egg allergies on skin tests at age 1 were four times more likely to have eczema at age 4. And children who had a cat at age 1 and tested positive for cat allergies at age 1, 2, or 3 were at more than 13 times the risk of having eczema at age 4 than other youngsters.
Pollen from elm trees was also a risk factor: Children who tested positive for elm allergies at age 1, 2, or 3 had nearly three times the chance of having eczema at age 4 than other children.
Although the association between egg allergy and eczema is fairly well known, doctors don't always think to test young children with eczema for pollen or cat allergies, says researcher Tolly Epstein, MD, a fellow in the division of immunology.
If a child has unexplained symptoms, it might be prudent to consider elm and cat testing, she tells WebMD.
Interestingly, having a dog as an infant or toddler appeared to protect against eczema, Epstein says. "We don't know why."
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