“It’s a reasonable question, considering that many people, including health care practitioners, promote the idea that food is the root cause of eczema,” says Peter Lio, MD, founder and director of the Chicago Integrative Eczema Center.
The bottom line: It’s not.
In reality, eczema seems to be the result of an inherited defect in the skin’s ability to act as a barrier and keep in things that are beneficial (like moisture) and keep out things that are harmful (such as irritants, allergens, and germs).
While food allergies do not cause eczema, there is a link, especially with young children.
Research shows that moisturizing the skin of babies at high risk for atopic dermatitis and food allergies appears to prevent the development of both.
The Link Between Food Allergies and Eczema Flares
There’s not a lot of research on the link between adult eczema and food. Researchers know people with atopic dermatitis are more likely to have food allergies than the rest of us. That’s most true in children: Thirty-five percent of kids with moderate-to-severe eczema have a food allergy that can trigger a flare-up, with eggs topping the list.
Hard data aren’t available, but experts agree that adults with eczema are far less likely to have food allergies. Even better: When they do have them, those allergies usually don’t lead to more — or worse — symptoms, Silverberg says. Still, there are cases when food allergies have a powerful effect, resulting in everything from hives to anaphylaxis, a life-threatening response.
“Eating the food triggers a reaction that then triggers an eczema flare-up,” Lio says.
You don’t have to be allergic to a food for it to cause a flare-up, though.
“Certain foods can fuel inflammation in the body in a less-specific manner,” Lio says. This is called a food sensitivity or a food intolerance. The good news about these is that they tend to stop wreaking havoc when atopic dermatitis becomes better controlled.
Once atopic dermatitis is adequately treated with medication and proper skin care, studies show people are usually able to eat some foods they couldn’t before.
“When [atopic dermatitis] is poorly controlled, food sensitivity tends to go through the roof,” Lio says. “Once it’s properly managed, everything settles down and borderline foods end up being OK.”