The Skin Microbiome in Eczema

Changes in the skin microbiome are closely associated with eczema

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Credits: "Pensheng Guo"
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Trillions of bacteria normally live within and on our bodies. Their byproduct is known as the microbiome.[1] Normally, these bacteria live in harmony as a community. There are many different types of microbiome communities in the body, ranging from the gut microbiome to the mouth microbiome to the skin microbiome. In eczema, medical researchers have looked closely at the skin microbiome and compared how it changes in the presence of eczema.

 

The Skin Microbiome Shifts in Eczema

The microbiome make-up and diversity appears to shift in those with eczema, especially when their eczema becomes inflamed and flares. Medical researchers have looked at this closely by following people with eczema before, during, and after a flare of their eczema.[2] They found that when eczema was well controlled, the skin microbiome was more diverse, and the microbiome diversity decreased during a flare. In other words, there was a greater number of different bacteria on the skin before an eczema flare and the number of different bacteria decreased during a flare. The researchers went one step further to identify Staphylococcus aureus as the bacteria that became dominant during an eczema flare. The shift in the microbiome toward Staphylococcus aureus occurred even before the eczema flared, raising the possibility that subtle shifts in the microbiome might predict an eczema flare. Once the eczema was brought under control with treatment, the skin microbiome returned to a state where balance and diversity of the bacteria were restored.

The researchers conducted a second study where they looked at how bacterial communities were different between children with more severe eczema compared to those with less severe eczema.[3] Children with more severe eczema tended to have overgrowth of the Staphylococcus aureus strain while those with less severe eczema had an abundance of Staphylococcus epidermidis, which is often a part of the normal skin bacteria. In this study, the researchers then took the same Staphylococcus aureus bacteria and applied it to the skin on the back of mice, and this triggered a response in the mouse’s skin to react with inflammation similar to what is seen in eczema. This study shows that the Staphylococcus aureus bacteria may partially drive the inflammation that is seen with severe eczema outbreaks.

 

An Increased Microbiome Diversity May Be Healthier

Diverse microbiome communities are rich in many different types of bacteria and have been associated with healthier skin in eczema. In the case of eczema, there appears to be a predominance of the Staphylococcus aureus when there is a flare. However, when the microbiome remains diverse, it appears that Staphylococcus aureus is not able to overgrow. The reasons for this remain unclear but may be because other species of bacteria compete with Staphylococcus aureus for resources and keep each other from overgrowing. 

 

Strategies to Keep the Microbiome Diversified

Researchers are looking for ways to restore a healthier microbiome in people with eczema. Two approaches are either to prevent the microbiome from shifting to an unhealthy state or to restore a healthy microbiome quickly as soon as there is an eczema flare.

Proactive approaches

  • Bleach baths: Dilute bleach baths are similar to a swimming pool. The dilute bleach is not irritating to the skin[4] but can help improve eczema.
  • Antibiotic ointment in the nose: It turns out that the nose is a rich source of bacteria for the rest of the body. Researchers have shown that eczema could be improved by using bleach baths along with treatment of the nose with mupirocin (an antibiotic) to reduce Staphylococcus aureus. [5]
  • Regular moisturizer use: Moisturizers help keep the skin hydrated. This helps to prevent bacteria living on the skin surface from entering the skin to cause infection and allergy. Regular moisturizer use helps to keep the microbiome diversified.[6]

  Reactive approaches

  • Antibiotics: Antibiotics can help restore balance to the skin’s bacterial community when there is overgrowth of one bacterium, such as Staphylococcus bacterium. If there is fever, yellow-crust, or pus draining from the skin, a physician needs to immediately evaluate the skin. Although antibiotics will kill off both good and bad bacteria, it allows for the skin to have a restoration of balance.
  • Steroids: Topical steroids are effective in reducing inflammation and in treating eczema flares. The use of steroids to reduce inflammation is associated with reducing the dominance of aureus.[2,7] The goal with steroids is to use them for a short time to reduce flares and then transition to non-steroid based therapies for maintenance.

While proactive approaches may not be able to totally eliminate eczema flares, they may decease the frequency and severity of eczema flares, thereby decreasing the need for reactive approaches.

 

The Overall Effect of the Microbiome

Microbiome research is an exciting and growing area of research. Changes in the skin microbiome are closely associated with eczema, but we still do not fully understand how the different bacteria are interacting with each other and our immune system. 

 

* This Website is for general skin beauty, wellness, and health information only. This Website is not to be used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment of any health condition or problem. The information provided on this Website should never be used to disregard, delay, or refuse treatment or advice from a physician or a qualified health provider.

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References

  1. Grice EA, Kong HH, Conlan S, et al. Topographical and temporal diversity of the human skin microbiome. Science.2009;324(5931):1190-1192; PMID: 19478181 Link to research.
  2. Kong HH, Oh J, Deming C, et al. Temporal shifts in the skin microbiome associated with disease flares and treatment in children with atopic dermatitis. Genome Res.2012;22(5):850-859; PMID: 22310478 Link to research.
  3. Byrd AL, Deming C, Cassidy SKB, et al. Staphylococcus aureus and Staphylococcus epidermidis strain diversity underlying pediatric atopic dermatitis. Sci Transl Med.2017;9(397)PMID: 28679656 Link to research.
  4. Shi VY, Foolad N, Ornelas JN, et al. Comparing the effect of bleach and water baths on skin barrier function in atopic dermatitis: a split-body randomized controlled trial. Br J Dermatol.2016;175(1):212-214; PMID: 26875771 Link to research.
  5. Huang JT, Abrams M, Tlougan B, et al. Treatment of Staphylococcus aureus colonization in atopic dermatitis decreases disease severity. Pediatrics.2009;123(5):e808-814; PMID: 19403473 Link to research.
  6. Seite S, Flores GE, Henley JB, et al. Microbiome of affected and unaffected skin of patients with atopic dermatitis before and after emollient treatment. J Drugs Dermatol.2014;13(11):1365-1372; PMID: 25607704 Link to research.
  7. Nilsson E, Henning C, Hjorleifsson ML. Density of the microflora in hand eczema before and after topical treatment with a potent corticosteroid. J Am Acad Dermatol.1986;15(2 Pt 1):192-197; PMID: 3745523 Link to research.