In a randomized trial evaluating the effect of installation of ion-exchange water softeners in the households of children with eczema, the researchers found no evidence of improvement in eczema severity as compared to usual care in the study population.
Epidemiological studies and anecdotal reports suggest a possible link between household use of hard water and atopic eczema. We sought to test whether installation of an ion-exchange water softener in the home can improve eczema in children.
Methods and Findings
This was an observer-blind randomised trial involving 336 children (aged 6 months to 16 years) with moderate/severe atopic eczema. All lived in hard water areas (≥200 mg/l calcium carbonate). Participants were randomised to either installation of an ion-exchange water softener plus usual eczema care, or usual eczema care alone. The primary outcome was change in eczema severity (Six Area Six Sign Atopic Dermatitis Score, SASSAD) at 12 weeks, measured by research nurses who were blinded to treatment allocation. Analysis was based on the intent-to-treat population. Eczema severity improved for both groups during the trial. The mean change in SASSAD at 12 weeks was −5.0 (20% improvement) for the water softener group and −5.7 (22% improvement) for the usual care group (mean difference 0.66, 95% confidence interval −1.37 to 2.69, p = 0.53). No between-group differences were noted in the use of topical corticosteroids or calcineurin inhibitors.
Water softeners provided no additional benefit to usual care in this study population. Small but statistically significant differences were found in some secondary outcomes as reported by parents, but it is likely that such improvements were the result of response bias, since participants were aware of their treatment allocation. A detailed report for this trial is also available at http://www.hta.ac.uk.
Current Controlled Trials ISRCTN71423189
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Eczema (sometimes referred to as atopic dermatitis) is a chronic, inflammatory skin condition that affects about 20% of school children in developed countries. Eczema is often associated with other conditions, such as asthma, hay-fever and food allergy and can cause intractable itching leading to thickened skin, bleeding, secondary infection, sleep loss, poor concentration, and psychological distress. Current topical treatments for eczema have side effects, for example, topical corticosteroids may cause skin thinning and the long term safety of topical tacrolimus and pimecrolimus has yet to be determined. Therefore, there is a lot of interest in exploring the benefits of non-pharmacological treatments that have no apparent side effects.
Water hardness (≥200 mg/l calcium carbonate) has become a recent focus of attention.
Why Was This Study Done?
In addition to some epidemiological evidence linking increased water hardness with increased eczema prevalence, there have been widespread anecdotal reports of improvement in the skin of children with eczema when the family has moved from a hard to a soft water area. In addition, some patients report how their eczema symptoms have rapidly improved following the installation of a water softener. However, to date there have been no relevant published trials evaluating the potential benefit of water softeners for eczema. Given the lack of evidence, the high public interest in their potential benefit and the low risk of adverse effects, the researcher conducted a study to assess whether the installation of an ion-exchange water softener reduces the severity of eczema in children with moderate to severe eczema.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers did a pilot study that showed that it was not possible to blind participants to their treatment allocation using real and “dummy” water softener units because the softened water produced more soap suds. So the researchers conducted an observer-blind randomised controlled trial in which they used trained research nurses to conduct an objective assessment of every participant's skin. The researchers recruited 336 children who all lived in hard water areas in England. Eligible children were aged 6 months to 16 years who had a diagnosis of eczema (in line with the UK working party's diagnostic criteria) and an eczema severity score of 10 or over. Participants were randomised to either installation of an ion-exchange water softener plus usual eczema care, or usual eczema care alone. Trained research nurses examined each child's skin at baseline and at 6, 12, and 16 weeks to record changes in eczema severity. The researchers also analysed any changes in symptoms over the study period such as, sleep loss and itchiness, the amount of topical corticosteroid/calcineurin inhibitors used, the Dermatitis Family Impact questionnaire and the health related Quality of Life (children's version).
Although both treatment groups improved in disease severity during the course of the trial, the researchers found no difference between the treatment groups in the main outcome—eczema severity. Similar finding were found for night movement (scratching) and the use of topical medications (creams/ointments applied to the skin), both of which were blinded to intervention status. Nevertheless, parents in the trial did report small health benefits, and just over 50% chose to buy the water softener at the end of the trial because of perceived improvements in the eczema and the wider benefits of water softeners. It is unclear how much of this effect can be explained by prior belief in the effectiveness of the water softeners for the treatment of eczema.
What Do These Findings Mean?
The results of this study suggest that water softeners provide no additional clinical benefit to usual care in children with eczema so the use of ion-exchange water softeners for the treatment of moderate to severe eczema in children should not be recommended. However, it is up to each family to decide whether or not the wider benefits of installing a water softener in their home are sufficient to consider buying one.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000395.
The UK's NHS presents information on eczema for patients and families
MedlinePlus gives information for patients, families, and caregivers on eczema and other similar conditions
The National Eczema Society in the UK provides information and a helpline for eczema patients, families, and caregivers
Medinfo provides information for eczema patients
Wikipedia has more information about water softening (note that Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)