Hard water may increase eczema risk in infants, study says

Although a genetic mutation was associated with increased risk for the condition, nearly 90 percent of infants with hard water in their homes had eczema, researchers report.
By Stephen Feller  |  May 19, 2016 at 9:38 AM
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LONDON, May 19 (UPI) -- Hard water at home has been linked to a significantly increased risk for eczema at a much younger age than researchers previously thought, according to a recent study.

Researcher's at King's College London found a nearly 90 percent risk for eczema in infants, a far more intense association than the increased risk previous studies have found for schoolchildren whose faucets bring hard water.

Eczema is an itchy, red rash that often occurs on the elbows or knees, though it can appear on any part of the body, usually occurring in children but clearing by the time of adulthood, according to the National Eczema Association.

The hardness of water is based on levels of dissolved minerals, generally calcium and magnesium, found in it, with previous studies suggesting it can increase risk for the skin condition.

While researchers say it is possible that environmental factors or other health factors are at play, and a breakdown of the barriers and dry skin are thought to increase risk for eczema. In the recent study, however, researchers found infants in areas of England with hard water were much more likely to develop the condition.

"Our study builds on growing evidence of a link between exposure to hard water and the risk of developing eczema in childhood," Dr. Carsten Flohr, a researcher in the St. John's Institute of Dermatology at King's College London, said in a press release. "It's not yet clear whether calcium carbonate has a direct detrimental effect on the skin barrier, or whether other environmental factors directly related to water hardness, such as the water's pH, may be responsible."

For the study, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, researchers recruited 1,303 3-month-old infants participating in the EAT study, a general population study of allergy prevalence in English children.

The researchers analyzed data on levels of calcium and chlorine in household water among the children, comparing it with levels of eczema, skin barrier function and mutations in skin barrier-associated genes, finding children with hard water at home were 87 percent more likely to have the condition.

Although children with a mutation to the FLG skin barrier gene had higher risk for eczema, the researchers report this was not statistically significant when compared to increased risk from hard water alone.

"Interactions between hardness and chlorine levels, other chemical water constituents and the skin's microflora may also play a role, and this warrants further research," Flohr said. "We are about to launch a feasibility trial to assess whether installing a water softener in the homes of high risk children around the time of birth may reduce the risk of eczema and whether reducing chlorine levels brings any additional benefits."

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