This is a plain English summary of an original research article. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and reviewer(s) at the time of publication.
Six months of wearing special silk clothing had no effect on objective measures of child eczema severity, infection rates or medication use. Children and carers reported some small improvements in eczema severity on two scales but their awareness of the clothing worn by their child may have slightly influenced their judgment. Overall quality of life did not significantly improve.
Specialist silk clothing is currently available on NHS prescription, but prior to this trial there was limited evidence to guide its use.
The findings from this NIHR funded trial indicate that silk clothing is not very effective, and at almost £60,000 per year of quality-adjusted life gained, the clothing does not meet the cost effectiveness thresholds that are used as a guide to whether they are value for money if used in the NHS.
Most participants were happy to wear silk clothing and some parents felt that it had improved their child’s symptoms, so the garments are likely to be still available for purchase.
Why was this study needed?
Eczema is an inflammatory skin condition that leads to dry, cracked, blistered and itchy skin. It is typically managed using moisturisers (emollients) and mild corticosteroids applied to the skin.
People with severe eczema or who have serious “flare ups” may require more intensive treatments such as oral corticosteroids and regular use of bandages to protect the skin. Severe eczema can be distressing and the broken skin can get infected.
Around 10% of children will experience eczema and parents or carers are often keen to manage symptoms to prevent the need for strong medications. One option is specialist silk clothing, which is designed not to irritate or damage the skin. Silk clothing is available on prescription via the NHS or to buy privately, however, there is limited evidence for its effectiveness.
What did this study do?
The CLOTHing for the relief of Eczema Symptoms (CLOTHES) trial randomised 300 children aged one to 15 years with moderate to severe eczema to either continue usual eczema care (moisturising creams, corticosteroid creams) or to wear specialist silk clothing in addition to usual care.
Participants were recruited via five centres around the UK, through secondary or primary care. Some self-referred after seeing adverts. Most participants were white (79%), over half were male (58%) and their average age was five years.
The 100% silk garments were made from antimicrobially protected material and supplied free to participants. Each received three sets of garments to be worn for up to six months (day and night). At six months the standard care group received the garments to use for the remaining two-month observational period.
Nurses assessing eczema severity were not aware of whether the child was using silk clothing or not, to reduce the chance that knowing this could bias their assessment. Participants and their families were aware of which group they had been allocated to and this may have influenced their assessments of the severity of their child’s eczema.
What did it find?
- Eczema severity on the 72-point Eczema Area and Severity Index scale did not differ significantly between silk clothing and usual care groups at any time point. Baseline (9.2 vs 8.4), two months (6.4 vs 6.6), four months (5.8 vs 6.0) and six months (both 5.4) follow-up.
- Participant-reported eczema severity on the 28-point Patient-Orientated Eczema Measure scale was lower in the silk group by six months (adjusted mean difference ‑2.8, 95% confidence interval [CI] ‑3.9 to ‑1.8).
- Rates of skin infection were similar for usual care (28%) and silk clothing (25%). There were also no between-group differences in frequency or types of medication used, or health-related quality of life on any scale.
- Participants generally wore the clothing as recommended. 82% wore the garments at least 50% of the time; compliance was higher at night-time (81% of nights) than daytime (34%). The clothing was considered acceptable to participants, 70% of whom were happy to wear them. There were some concerns raised about poor durability (45.5% of participants had at least one item replaced in six months) and fit, which could affect whether people wear them or not.
- The silk clothing cost £318.52, which combined with other healthcare costs have an average (mean) cost of £364.94 (95% CI £217.47 to £512.42) per participant. The adjusted mean difference in QALY per participant was 0.0064 (95% CI –0.0004 to 0.0133). The modelling of costs and health benefits gave an extra cost of £56,811 per quality adjusted life year gained, which is higher than the £20,000 to £30,000 NICE uses as an indicative threshold for cost effectiveness.
What does current guidance say on this issue?
NICE guidance from 2007 on managing eczema in under 12s recommends that treatment is tailored according to the severity of eczema (“stepped care”). Mild eczema is managed using emollients (moisturising creams) and mild corticosteroids applied to the skin.
Treatment of moderate eczema includes moderate topical corticosteroids and the potential addition of calcineurin inhibitors (anti-inflammatory creams) and bandages. Severe eczema is managed in the same way, but using stronger topical corticosteroids, and potentially phototherapy (using UV light) or systemic therapy using oral corticosteroids or ciclosporin (which suppresses the immune system).
There are no recommendations regarding specialist silk clothing.
What are the implications?
Prescribing specialist silk clothing does not improve eczema severity or quality of life for those that suffer sufficiently to justify its cost to the NHS.
Silk clothing is available via prescription currently, but this study suggests that the commissioning or funding priorities could be reviewed because of the overall cost of the garments and lack of evidence on clinical effectiveness.
Citation and Funding
Thomas KS, Bradshaw LE, Sach TH, et al. Randomised controlled trial of silk therapeutic garments for the management of atopic eczema in children: the CLOTHES trial. HealthTechnol Assess. 2017;21(16):1-260.
This project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research Health Technology Assessment programme (project number 11/65/01).
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