TUESDAY, Feb. 22 (HealthDay News) -- Despite suggestions that hard water may provoke the itchy and discomforting skin condition known as atopic eczema, a new British study has found that softening the water does nothing to relieve sufferers.
"Although the outcome is disappointing in terms of future treatment options for children with eczema, the outcome of the trial is very clear," the study's lead author, Hywel Williams, a professor of dermato-epidemiology at the University of Nottingham, said in a university news release. "Both the water softening and control groups improved equally in the study when the eczema was measured objectively."
The study, which focused on children between 6 months and 16 years old, was conducted in collaboration with a representative of the water softener industry, which provided technical expertise and partial funding. The findings are reported in the Feb. 15 issue of PLoS Medicine.
In its milder form, eczema manifests as dry, red and itchy skin. More severe cases may feature broken, raw and bleeding skin. The condition can have a profoundly negative effect on a person's sleep patterns and quality of life.
An estimated 20 percent of schoolchildren and one in 12 adults have eczema, the study authors noted.
According to the researchers, some believe that hard water contributes to the condition because it contains high levels of calcium and magnesium, which might encourage the use of soaps, prompting the kind of skin irritation that could give rise to eczema.
To test the belief, the research team installed water softening systems in 159 homes of children who had moderate to severe eczema. The children all lived in areas of England known to have hard water. For comparison, they monitored another 164 homes where no softening systems were used.
After the soft water systems had been in place for three months, the researchers found that the switch had conveyed no benefits to the afflicted children.
"We would have been happier if we had shown a clear benefit of using water softeners," Williams said. "However, that is not the case, and we need to face the truth."
Nonetheless, many of the parents opted to purchase a water softening system at the end of the study, the researchers reported, "and it is important to realize that other benefits of water softening in the home might be important for families, too," Williams said.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more on atopic eczema.