April 27, 2009 -- Participating in a clinical trial in 2006 changed 7-year-old Ben Kieffer's life, says his mom, Jennifer.
"His calves were covered in scales and his hands would crack and swell with infection," Jennifer Kieffer tells WebMD. "It was really tough for him, but we saw a big change almost immediately after he joined the study."
While Ben's improvement was remarkable, even more remarkable is the fact that the treatment he received was not a high-tech, expensive new drug or topical cream.
In fact, it's about as low tech, and inexpensive, as you can get.
When his eczema flared, Ben soaked daily in bath water containing about a quarter cup of household bleach.
He still takes frequent bleach baths, even though his eczema is much improved. His mom says the baths have made all the difference.
"For pennies' worth of bleach to work so well is just amazing," she says.
But before you try this at home, talk to your doctor or your child's doctor about it.
Bleach Baths for Eczema
As many as one in five school-aged children have eczema, known medically as atopic dermatitis. The skin condition is characterized by itchy, inflamed skin that often becomes scabby and raw from scratching.
Frequent scratching, which breaks the skin, often leads to skin infections, including difficult to treat ones like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
Pediatric dermatologist Amy Paller, MD, tells WebMD that about 90% of people with eczema have staph on their skin, compared to about 25% of the population at large.
Staph infections have traditionally been treated with antibiotics, but bleach baths can also kill the microbes that cause infection.
Paller now recommends bleach baths to all her patients with moderate to severe eczema.
Along with Jennifer Huang, MD, and colleagues from Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, Paller conducted one of the first formal studies to examine the treatment.
Thirty-one children between the ages of 6 months and 17 years, including Ben Kieffer, were included in the study.
All had moderate to severe eczema and were also infected with staph, and all were being treated with a 14-day course of antibiotics.
In addition to the drug treatment, half of the patients took bleach baths and the other half took "placebo" baths without bleach.
The study design called for the patients to soak in the bleach or placebo baths twice a week, but Paller says more frequent baths may be useful during eczema flare-ups.
Children in the study who took the bleach baths had a reduction in eczema severity that was five times greater than the children who took the placebo baths after three months.
The results were so dramatic that researchers stopped the three-month study early so that all the children could benefit from the bleach baths, Paller says.
Children who were randomly assigned to the bleach-bath group of the study also dabbed a topical antibiotic up their nose (where staph bacteria are often harbored). But Paller says she has many patients who don't use this intervention and still improve with bleach baths.
The study appears in the May issue of the journal Pediatrics.
"This is not going to be a cure for everybody, but there is certainly a subset of patients who will benefit tremendously," Paller says.
Bleach for Community-Acquired MRSA?
Dermatologist Cheryl Lee Eberting, MD, who practices in Alpine, Utah, is a big believer in bleach baths.
She recommends them for her patients with eczema, and she says they may have a wider application for addressing a rapidly emerging public health threat -- community-acquired MRSA.
While most MRSA infections still occur in hospital settings, community acquired infections of drug-resistant staph are on the rise. Staph bacteria that are most widely publicized as a cause of breakouts have been traced to gyms and locker rooms.
"If you play a contact sport or work out at the health club a lot, it probably wouldn't hurt to take an occasional bleach bath," Eberting says. Talk to your doctor before doing so.