Different Atopics Podcast

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.

 

Prescription Without A Cause

It’s not the steroid itself I have a problem with in the medical community. No. It is the overprescription & the lack of detective work to see if the patient even NEEDS the steroid that can cause so much harm when abused. That is what I have a problem with…

Take this dentist for instance. Here is the article that surfaced about his intense struggle with facial eczema.

Link to full article about Dr. Frances Tavares 

This dentist, Dr. Frances Tavares, was not only misdiagnosed and mistreated, but then had to deal with Red Skin Syndrome because of his overprescription of topical steroids (on his face no less). We already know that the face is one of the most sensitive areas/high absorption spots on the body. To use topical steroids on the face is already a risk, but then for such a long period of time is extremely neglectful.

After countless different dermatologists giving him different brands of topical steroids, Dr. Tavares was finally allergy tested 2 YEARS after first being seen. That is an obscene amount of time for a dermatologist to wait when the patient is not responding well to the steroid. It even says on topical steroid inserts that doctors should reassess the situation if it doesn’t get better (… not 2 years later).

After he had the allergy test, he found out he had an allergy to propylene glycol, which is commonly found in lotions, toothpaste and other body care products. By getting rid of products with this ingredient, he was fine. Or was he?…

No, he wasn’t. He had to withdrawal from the topical steroids that he had been using for so long because dermatologists didn’t take the time to properly diagnosis him. If they found the root cause to begin with, there would not have been any need for steroids.

And the biggest problem I find about this article is the emphasis they put on tapering, as if to say tapering solves all your problems. There are many Red Skin Syndrome sufferers who have tapered down, just as their doctors have prescribed, and still flare badly. Could it help with adrenal fatigue? Sure, I can see that if they need it for their adrenals. But to say they will be fine once they taper is not accurate.

“The doctor who diagnosed Tavares’ allergy says there’s no problem with the prescription of corticosteroids, but it is a mistake for patients to come off them cold turkey.”

Yes, yes there is a problem. No, I am not a doctor, but YES there is a problem. These topical steroids should not be prescribed for long periods of time, especially not on the face. It is not only neglectful but shows a lack of education on the topic of steroids.

So, I beg of you. If you have a rash come up, anywhere, get it tested (allergy and or swabbed for infection) before you start slathering on topical steroids as a solution. They are not meant for a long term solution.

How is this Legitimate?

This is the abstract from a review done in Australia on the effects of TCS in children.

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“… and their unfounded concerns…” Ya, you read that right. I’m quite concerned as to what they deem unfounded?

“Contrary to popular perceptions, (TCS) use in pediatric eczema does not cause atrophy, hypopigmentation, hypertrichosis, osteoporosis, purpura or telangiectasia when used appropriately as per guidelines.”

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Link for above article

It is well known that using topical steroids on children should be used with extreme caution, and if parents have questions or concerns, they didn’t just suddenly make them up in their head. No, they have undoubtedly heard things (that are likely founded) and have every right to be concerned. Often times, children even outgrow eczema. If their case is mild, there is no reason to start lathering them in topical steroids (in my personal opinion). Babies get rashes and skin blemishes. If they aren’t bothering the child or aren’t severe, perhaps finding a more natural way to deal with their skin would be best before jumping onto steroids.

A problem I also have with the “use appropriately as per guidelines” sentence is that doctors often stray from the said guidelines. If the product says to only use the drug a certain way and the doctor’s discretion is different, then there is a huge problem. No amount of “don’t worry” or “it’s totally safe” will in actuality make it safe for you to go past the 2 to 4 week rule in children. And, the larger the surface area you are told to put the steroid, the higher the potential of adverse effects (you know, those “unfounded” ones).

To further my proof, you can read the FDA Evaluation and Research paper.

Founded by three different references, it states, “… HPA axis suppression has been observed in infants and children with both high potency and low potency topical corticosteroids.” Why on earth would you put a child at an even higher risk with potent steroids when they should only be placed on the least potent steroid first, of which they could still risk having side effects if used over the guideline mark? For example, this evaluation states Fluticasone (Class 5 steroid), is said to be approved for patients 3 months old and up for a maximum of 4 weeks. Other studies show an even shorter period of 2 weeks should be utilized. The potent and super potent steroids are Class 1 and 2.

The best part of this research paper: “… the labeling of each product should advise practitioners of the appropriate duration of use of the product. The labeling should give information regarding how quickly improvement in dermatoses should occur after therapy with topical corticosteroid is started, and practitioners should be advised to discontinue the product if improvement does not occur within this time frame.”

It doesn’t say if the steroid isn’t working, immediately up their potency. It says DISCONTINUE. They need to be reassessed.This is what is supposed to happen.

Topical Steroid Label

Whenever we purchase a prescription, there is always an insert or attached label outlining that specific drug’s usage. More often than not, we toss it into the trash. What we should be doing is taking the time to read the insert because it holds extremely valuable information. However, on the contrary, there is misguided information that needs to be looked at closely.

The following is seen on the insert for Clobetasol Propionate, a Class 1 Super Potent steroid:

In bold letters: do not use for more than 2 weeks, 50g per week, because it can suppress the HPA axis.

First off, it warns not use to this for more than 14 days. What it does not say is “Do not use for more than 14 days unless your doctor thinks it’s cool.” There is a definite reason why it states that warning despite what your doctor tells you.

HPA axis suppression is not something you, or your doctor, should take lightly. You are highly increasing your chances of developing Red Skin Syndrome and creating an imbalance in your adrenal glands.

Also, what does 50g a week mean to you? Most likely nothing because you are not a doctor and have no idea how to measure out 50g.

Let’s say your doctor gave you a tube that was 60g large, and their instructions were to “use on flaring areas once a day.” That was it. That was all they told you. Well, your thighs, hands, elbow area, and neck are flaring. These areas combined, using the fingertip method, come out to around 10g a day of use. 10g x 7 days = 70g a week. That is over the maximum limit of use.

But let’s take this further. In bold, the insert states:

“Precautions: General: Clobetasol Propionate is a highly potent topical corticosteroid that has been shown to suppress the HPA axis at doses as low as 2g per day.”

2g per day! That is around 4 fingertip units a day.

2g x 7 days a week = 14g a week. So, more accurately, 50g a week is WAY too much. Even if 14g a week is seen as the ‘minimum’ to cause HPA axis suppression, that means THERE IS A POSSIBILITY it can happen with just 14g a week, which in turn shows there is a LARGE POSSIBILITY it will happen at the ‘safe usage’ of 50g a week.

That 36g difference is remarkable. This is something that rarely ever gets explained in a doctor’s office. When a doctor gives you the instruction to “use sparingly”, this is what they should be explaining to you.

But let’s move on.

When using steroids, adults are not equal to children.

“Pediatric patients may be more susceptible to systemic toxicity from equivalent doses due to their large skin surface to body mass ratios.”

First off, the word systemic should bounce out. If any doctor tells you that topical steroids “are not systemic”, they are lying to you. Just because you are not orally using them, does not mean they do not penetrate our skin and enter our system.

And two, this should put up a huge warning flag. If 14g a week is the lowest dose they saw suppression in for adults, try halving that, or even one quarter. That would be between 4g and 8g a week for small children and babies. And, because they are smaller, there is a larger chance of suppression. Besides, in bold caps, the insert says, “Use in children under 12 years of age is not recommended.” If a doctor prescribes this to a child under 12, especially a baby, know that this recommendation should read more as a forbiddance.

“If concomitant skin infections are present or develop, an appropriate antifungal or antibacterial agent should be used. If a favorable response does not occur promptly, use of clobetasol propionate should be discontinued until the infection has been adequately controlled.”

First off, you’ve got the vague “promptly” in there. Give us actual numbers, perhaps, “1-2 days”. And secondly, you should NEVER use steroids on an infection. It will just make them worse. Check out Tinea Incognito.

“#5 Patients should inform their physicians that they are using clobetasol propionate if surgery in contemplated.”

I had never heard of this before, so I do hope this information is shared in the doctor’s office and not left for the patient to (not) read in the insert.

And last, but certainly not least, in lovely bold writing, “should not be used on the face, groin, or axiliae”. This isn’t a recommendation. This is a definite warning.