Dr. Matthew Zirwas, an Ohio MD, gave a very poignant (albeit slightly arrogant) talk in Arizona this October about atopic dermatitis in adults and how he categorizes this condition in order to give the right treatment.
He starts off with saying he is able to fix 90% of his patients. About 1 out of 10 of his patients he just isn’t able to truly help. Perhaps they are those with Red Skin Syndrome?
He checks IgE levels to see just how atopic they are (and to help initiate compliance).
Overall, I don’t appreciate the way he spoke about patients (very condescending), and even stated he had no problem lying to patients to get compliance, but I do wish to write about his lecture because it had interesting points.
One of the first things he began to mention was how awful the mainstream treatment for atopic dermatitis is for patients, especially when it comes to topical steroids. Dr. Zirwas gave a scenario of what usually happened when he was a resident. His doctor would state,
“Here is your triamicilone ointment, use dove soap, wear cotton clothes, stay cool, don’t sweat too much, don’t shower too much, good luck.” And we should have said as they were walking out of the door, “you’re not going to get any better…”
He knew there needed to be a change. He wanted to help people actually get better. He said that topical steroids actually make the skin barrier worse. It may seem to help the symptom in the short run but it’s not fixing the problem, it’s actually causing a problem. He uses the analogy of using prednisone on bacterial pneumonia. The patient will feel great 12 hours in, but then will die because the steroids will have allowed the infection to get worse.
“Topical Steroids is probably one of the worst imaginable things you could do. If you were going to say ‘What’s the worst thing you could do for atopic dermatitis, it would be topical steroids.”
Now, I am going to get a little scientific on you. He used A LOT of big words. The lecture was riddled with jargon.
Dr. Zirwas explained the role of filaggrin for our skin. It is what brings together cyto-skeletal proteins. So, he uses the analogy of a hollow brick or shell as your stratum corneum (the outer layer of skin), and the filaggrin is what hardens it so nothing harmful can get in. It then degrades it into amino acids (which is our natural moisturizing factor, acting as a retainer for moisture in the outer layer of skin). Furthermore, it is a source of urocanic acid (a UV absorber). For those of us who are deficient in filaggrin, we are susceptible to friction, dryness and scaling, and fissuring (cracking).
While explaining this, he concludes that we shouldn’t be calling our condition atopic dermatitis, but cutaneous barrier disfunction. The biggest problem is our broken skin barrier.
Normal skin is like a wet sponge, moist and flexible and hard to tear. Atopic skin is much like a dried out sponge that’s hard, dry, and cracks.
He moves on to the main topic of the lecture: his 4 categories and how to treat them.
When it comes to mild-to-moderate atopics, it’s usually just water and irritants penetrating into the skin. With severe atopics, it is usually proteins leaking into the skin. Finding out which proteins these are will help you understand which treatment will work.
Main Goal: 1) Improve Skin Barrier and 2) Reduce protein exposure
The 1st Category, which everyone fits in, is barrier disfunction. This means lichenification, xerotic, usually worse in winter, and dull red. Treatment: physiological moisturizers (Ceramid based moisturizers). He feels these are effective because they penetrate the stratum corneum (outer skin layer), into the keratinocytes, into the golgi, and helps create natural skin moisture.
Ceramide based products, like EpiCerum, take time. Dr. Zirwas says no one will see results overnight. They need at least a week for results.
Here is where I get a bit off with his method, but it’s his way…
He mixes clobetasol steroid solution in with the creams for patients. He tells them to take the 50mg solution and pour it into a tub of new CeraVe (found at your local drug store) and use that for a month, 2x a day. That is a super potent steroid. Why give someone THAT potent of a steroid, regardless that it is diluted? His reasoning is that he feels the physiological cream makes the steroid less harmful to the skin barrier. Is there scientific evidence for this? I have no idea. I wish there was. And I am not sure if he has them do it for more than a month. If it’s just a month, I can kind of calm down about it, but if he puts his patients on this for a while, then it worries me.
The rest of the treatment for your barrier is: Shower at least 2 times a day and put a physiological moisturizer on right after – use a shower filter – double rinse your laundry or use vinegar in the mix – and use DryerMax dyer balls.
He also went into talking about how he feels ointments are not the best choice for topical steroids. His logic is that steroids are looking for the most oily environment. The more oil in our vehicle of choice (like an ointment), the less likely the steroid with leave and penetrate into the skin. So he sees it as ointment is the worst, then cream, then lotion, then solution is the best. I can see his logic in this, but I don’t know of any scientific research backing this. I know ointments are more occlusive, so I would think, no matter what, the steroid would penetrate.
Category 2: Airborne -type
Aesthetically, men have what Dr. Zirwas calls an ‘inverse t-shirt’ pattern. Everything under his shirt is fine, but all the rest of his skin exposed to the outside is not. And women usually have facial dermatitis. Also, these patients usually have asthma and bad itching at night time.
He feels these are the hardest to treat. The problems are protein ‘allergies’, such as dust mites, pollen, ragweed, etc. These allergins are protease, which means they cause itch and worsening of the condition. These are the TH2 and TH17 triggers (which, when imbalanced, cause issues).
His Treatment: Mattress and pillow case covers (keeps the dust mite poop down) – washing at least twice a day, women washing their face as much as they can (and then putting on physiological moisturizers)
Category 3: malassezia driven
It affects the head and neck area. Usually they have eczema as children, but then into adulthood, it gets bad on their face.
This is his favorite type to treat since it’s easiest to him.
His Treatment: Itraconazole (check LFTs — which is liver function) 100mg 2x a day for 2 months, and ??? on weekends 100mg a day (literally could not understand what he said) – or- Ketoconazole (always check LFTs). He feels the former drug is safer than the latter, and feels orals must be used, not anti fungal creams.
Category 4: staph driven
It usually looks like moist atopic dermatitis with fissuring, crusting, and scabbing. Fairly bad eczema but it explodes/flares
He says he doesn’t swab (which made me angry) because he feels most of the time it isn’t MRSA so he doesn’t need to check. Well, I had MRSA on my skin in Month 8 of my withdrawal. If he hadn’t swabbed me, then I would still have had MRSA.
He says there hasn’t been a decent research article written about this. He also touched on antibiotic resistance and how we will be screwed possibly down the road.
His treatment: Keflix, Doxycycline or Bactrim for 4 weeks – Rifampin for 1 week in the beginning paired with one of three above (says it’s for decolonization) – Bleach bath once a week with clean towels, PJs, and sheets – Antibacterial washes (he likes Dial moisturizing antibacterial body wash) – avoid ointments (since he said most are contaminated with bacteria) – Neosporin 1 week per month on nostrils
Also, another reason for staph- driven dermatitis is decreased cathelicidin production. That means Vit-D production. You need to take LARGE doses, about 4,000 units a day. He says a study says it’s safe to take that much. No idea where that study is, but you can try and find it.
After explaining all of the different categories, he goes into some of the other treatments he gives on top of these if the patients are really bad. Things like immunosuppressants (Cellcept, Cyclosporin, Methotrexate). He says he barely prescribes these things since he can usually get things under control with his normal treatments.
Overall, it was informative. His method of treatment interests me, but not so much the compound steroid with CeraVe. I wonder how these patients would fair without the use of the steroids and just the other elements of his treatment.