Can putting bacteria on your skin actually cure disease? Perhaps.
Eczema (which is also called atopic dermatitis) is a common skin condition. People with eczema have itchy, scaly, dry skin. It often develops in infancy and improves as you get older. Some people with severe eczema have the disease for their whole lives. Atopic dermatitis seems to develop in people because they have both an imperfection in their skin’s barrier and because their immune system is a over-active.
A new way of thinking about eczema, as well as many other diseases, is that there is also an imbalance of bacteria living on your skin. Each of us has literally trillions of bacteria living on our skin as well as in our intestines and respiratory tracts. Whereas we traditionally think of infection from bacteria as causing disease, it seems that some diseases might be the result of loosing normal bacteria. This is why many people take probiotics and eat yogurt for gastrointestinal disorders — eating these bacteria-laden foods and supplements replenish normal bacteria — bacteria that is meant to live with us. These species of bacteria that share our bodies are known as normal flora (sounds like were walking flower gardens, doen’t it?).
Now a study from the United Kingdom has found that applying a cream that contains a non-pathogenic bacteria, Vitrescilla filiformis, to patients who have eczema can actually treat their skin condition. The study, published in the British Journal of Dermatology, found that patients treated with cream with a 5% concentration of the bacteria for 30 days had significantly reduced eczema, itching, and sleeplessness (from scratching at night) as compared to patients who applied a placebo cream that did not contain the bacteria.
The authors speculate that using the bacteria laden cream might work because the heavy concentration of “good” bacteria displaces “bad” or pathogenic bacteria such as Staph aureus. It might also be that restoring the normal flora on your skin helps to calm the immune system, decreasing the eczema in these patients.
In either case, the results of this study are interesting. I think that in the future we will be reading much more about the importance of mantaining a healthy growth of bacteria on your skin. Of course, this does not mean that next time you hurt yourself, you should “rub some dirt on it,” like Peyton Manning recommends. Dirt has lots of not-so-good bacteria in it that is likely to do more harm then good.
Then again, Peyton has a superbowl ring and I don’t, so maybe you should listen to him.