The Potential Health Risks of Atopic Dermatitis

Why this chronic skin condition may put your heart health at risk.

Medically reviewed in April 2022

Atopic dermatitis, also referred to as AD, is a chronic condition known for causing dry, irritated, itchy patches on the skin. It affects between 10 and 20 percent of children, and from one to three percent of adults, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

Atopic dermatitis can have a severe impact on a person’s quality of life, and some studies suggest the condition may also have an impact on a person’s cardiovascular health. According to research from Northwestern University published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, people with atopic dermatitis might be at increased risk for numerous other health problems, including cardiovascular disease, which is the number one cause of death of adults in the United States.

Researchers studied data from a total of close to 62,000 adults from the 2010 and 2012 National Health Interview Surveys. They found that patients with atopic dermatitis were more likely to have several potentially serious health conditions: they had higher body mass indexes, higher risk of hypertension, higher risk of having high cholesterol and were more likely to develop prediabetes; they were also more likely to smoke cigarettes and consume alcoholic beverages, and were less likely to engage in vigorous exercise on a regular basis—all of which are significant risk factors for developing cardiovascular disease. The study also found that patients who had sleep disturbance resulting from AD (which often causes itching at night, interrupting sleep) had even higher odds of several of these risk factors.

However, research into the association between AD and cardiovascular disease has had mixed results; a study published in The British Journal of Dermatology in 2017 found no link between AD and cardiovascular disease, though the researchers acknowledged that more research was needed to answer the question of whether the severity of AD was correlated with cardiovascular disease.

What’s the possible connection between AD and heart disease?
Why might AD patients have increased odds of certain cardiovascular risk factors? One explanation may be the toll that AD takes on a person’s emotional wellbeing and mental health.

Atopic dermatitis is stressful. Feeling self-conscious about your appearance, feeling frustrated when flare-ups persist and feeling worn out by the never-ending skincare routine are all normal emotional responses that almost everyone has to deal with at some point. It’s not surprising that research shows depression and anxiety are more common in people diagnosed with AD. And people with depression are more likely to report many of the cardiovascular risk factors discussed above, including obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, alcohol consumption and lack of physical activity.

What can you do to prevent heart disease?
While there’s no cure for atopic dermatitis, there are many steps you can take to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.

An important first step is working with your healthcare provider to come up with an AD treatment plan that works for you. Controlling AD symptoms and reducing flare-ups can help lower stress levels, improve the quality of your sleep and free up energy that you can direct into improving your overall health.

Make time to exercise regularly and eat a healthy, balanced diet, both of which will lower your risk of cardiovascular disease. If you smoke, quit, and limit your alcohol consumption. These steps may also help you better manage atopic dermatitis. Excess body weight, cigarette smoking, consuming alcohol, eating a poor diet and neglecting exercise all suppress immune function and increase inflammation, which means they could worsen your AD symptoms.

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