Young children whose parents are divorced may be more likely than other children to develop the allergic skin condition eczema, a new study has found.
Researchers speculate that the stress of divorce may affect children’s immune system in a way that promotes atopic eczema, in which an abnormal immune reaction periodically causes patches of skin to become inflamed, red and intensely itchy.
The study, which appears in the medical journal Allergy, followed 1,930 German children from birth to age 4. Parents periodically completed questionnaires on lifestyle factors and stressful life events - such as divorce and severe illnesses in the family - that might have an effect on children’s immune system functioning.
Overall, the study found, 21 percent of the children developed atopic eczema by the age of 4. And those whose parents divorced before they were 2 years old had a more than three-fold greater risk than children whose parents stayed together.
It’s possible that the stress of divorce is to blame, according to the researchers.
Studies have shown that stressful life events can boost the body’s levels of inflammatory immune system proteins called cytokines, explained study co-author Dr. Torsten Shafer of the Medical University Lubeck.
Divorce could also indirectly affects a child’s allergy risk. The separation, Shafer told Reuters Health, may change a child’s environment, including his or her diet and exposure to pets, secondhand smoke or infections.
In contrast to the case with divorce, the other stressful life events the researchers measured seemed to pose no eczema risk. In fact, children with a seriously ill family member were at relatively low risk of eczema.
It’s not clear why this is, but Shafer said it’s possible that when a family member is ill, the extended family comes together to offer support - which might, he speculated, buffer against severe stress.
SOURCE: Allergy, December 2006.
Revision date: June 14, 2011
Last revised: by Tatiana Kuznetsova, D.M.D.