Dermatologic Therapies and the Eyes: Tips from a Specialist

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The relative absorption of topical corticosteroids, which can induce cataracts and glaucoma, is 300-fold greater across the eyelids than plantar skin, but pediatric dermatologists need not dwell on this ratio when employing steroids near the eye, according to one of several clinical messages from a pediatric ophthalmologist who spoke here at the annual meeting of the Society for Pediatric Dermatology.  

“There is a lot of steroid fear out there, which you can argue is actually harmful in itself, because not treating periorbital eczema is related to a lot of eye problems, including chronic discomfort and the eye rubbing that can cause corneal abrasions and keratoconus,” said Sara Grace, MD, a pediatric ophthalmologist who is on the clinical staff at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. She maintains a practice at North Carolina Eye, Ear, Nose, and Throat in Durham.

Although the risks of periorbital steroid absorption are real, a limited course of low potency topical steroids is generally adequate for common periorbital indications, and these appear to be safe.

“There is insufficient evidence to link weak periocular topical corticosteroids such as desonide or hydrocortisone with ocular complications,” said Grace, suggesting that pediatric dermatologists can be reassured when using these medications at low concentrations.

“Potent periocular steroids have been associated with ocular complications, but this has typically involved exposures over months to years,” Grace specified.

When topical corticosteroids are applied at high concentrations on the face away from the periorbital area, glaucoma and other feared ophthalmic complications cannot be entirely ruled out, but, again, the risk is low in the absence of “very large quantities” of potent topical agents applied for lengthy periods of time, according to Grace, basing this observation on case studies.

In children, as in adults, the potential exception is a child with existing ocular disease. In such cases, or in children with risk factors for ocular disease, Grace recommends referral to an ophthalmologist for a baseline examination prior to a course of topical corticosteroids with the potential of periocular absorption. With a baseline assessment, adverse effects are more easily documented if exposure is prolonged.

The message, although not identical, is similar for use of dupilumab (Dupixent) or other biologics that target the interleukin-13 (IL-13) pathway. The potential for complications cannot be ignored but these are often time-limited and the benefit is likely to exceed the risk in children who have severe atopic dermatitis or other skin conditions for which these treatments are effective.

There are several potential mechanisms by which biologics targeting target IL-13 might increase risk of ocular complications, one of which is the role that IL-13 plays in ocular mucus production, regulation of conjunctival goblet cells, and tear production, according to several published reports. 

“Up to 30% of children will get some type of eye complication but, fortunately, most of them will not have to stop therapy,” Grace said. These side effects include conjunctivitis, blepharitis, keratitis, dry eye, and itching, but they are typically manageable. Topical steroids or calcineurin inhibitors can be offered if needed, but many of these conditions will self-resolve. Grace estimated that less than 1% of patients need to stop treatment due to ophthalmic side effects.

Lesions That Obstruct Vision

Grace urged pediatric dermatologists to be aware of the risk for amblyopia in young children with lesions that obstruct vision in one eye. In early development, prolonged obstruction of vision in one eye can alter neural communication with the brain, producing permanent vision impairment.

She explained that clearing the obstructed vision, whether from a capillary hemangioma or any periorbital growth, should be considered urgent to avoid irreversible damage.

Similarly, periorbital port-wine stains associated with Sturge-Weber syndrome, which is primarily a vascular disorder that predisposes children to glaucoma, represents a condition that requires prompt attention. Sturge-Weber syndrome is often but not always identified at birth, but it is a condition for which evaluation and treatment should involve the participation of an ophthalmologist.

Meibomian gland disease is another disorder that is often seen first by a pediatric dermatologist but also requires collaborative management. The challenge is sorting out the underlying cause or causes and initiating a therapy that unclogs the gland without having to resort to incision and drainage.

“Drainage is hard to do and is not necessarily effective,” explained Grace. While scrubs, warmth, and massage frequently are adequate to unclog the gland, which secretes meibum, a complex of lipids that perform several functions in protecting the eye, therapies specific to the cause, such as demodex-related blepharitis, chalazions, and styes, might be needed.

Grace indicated that patience is often needed. The process of unclogging these glands often takes time, but she emphasized that a first-line conservative approach is always appropriate to avoid the difficulty and potential problems of incisions.

In general, these messages are not novel, but they provide a refresher for pediatric dermatologists who do not regularly confront complications that involve the eyes. According to session moderator, Elizabeth Neiman, MD, assistant professor of pediatric dermatology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, the messages regarding topical steroids on the face and the eyes are “important” and worth emphasizing

“It’s useful to reinforce the point that corticosteroids should be used when needed in the periorbital area [to control skin diseases] if they are used in low concentrations,” Neiman told Medscape.

Similarly, conjunctivitis and other ocular complications of dupilumab are a source of concern for parents as well as dermatologists. Neiman indicated that a review of the benefit-to-risk ratio is important when considering these treatments in patients with indications for severe skin disorders.

Grace and Nieman have no potential financial conflicts related to this topic.

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