Research carried out by the universities suggests that a breakdown of the skin barrier and inflammation in the skin that occurs in eczema could trigger food sensitivity in young children.
Scientists examined over 600 three-month-old babies from the Enquiring About Tolerance (EAT) study, who were exclusively breastfed from birth.
They tested the babies for eczema and screened for gene mutations associated with the skin condition. The scientists also carried out skin prick tests to see whether the children were sensitive to the six most common allergenic foods: egg white, cow’s milk, peanuts, cod, wheat and sesame.
Egg white was the most common allergen for the babies, followed by cow’s milk and peanuts.
The more severe eczema in a child, the more likely a food sensitivity.
The scientists claim that as the babies in the study were exclusively breast-fed and had not eaten any solid foods, it suggests that active immune cells in the skin, rather than the gut, may play a crucial role in food sensitisation.
They go on to say that the breakdown of the skin barrier in eczema which could leave active immune cells in the skin exposed to environmental allergens, in this case certain foods, which then triggers an allergic reaction.
According to the study, almost one in 12 children in the UK have a food allergy.
Dr Carsten Flohr, a lecturer at King’s College and consultant at St John’s Institute of Dermatology at St Thomas’ Hospital, said, ‘This is a very exciting study, providing further evidence that an impaired skin barrier and eczema could play a key role in triggering food sensitivity in babies, which could ultimately lead to the development of food allergies.
‘This work takes what we thought we knew about eczema and food allergy and flips it on its head. We thought that food allergies are triggered from the inside out, but our work shows that in some children it could be form the outside in, via the skin.’
He concluded, ‘It (the findings) opens up the possibility that if we repair the skin barrier and prevent eczema effectively than we might also be able to reduce the risk of food allergies.’
The study, ‘Atopic dermatitis and disease severity are the main risk factors for food sensitisation in exclusively breastfed infants’, is published in the journal of Investigative Dermatology.