Acrodermatitis enteropathica (AE) is a disorder of zinc metabolism that occurs in one of two forms: an inborn (congenital) form and an acquired form. The inborn form of AE is a rare genetic disorder characterized by intestinal abnormalities that lead to the inability to absorb zinc from the intestine. The lack of zinc presents, characteristically, as: (1) skin inflammation with pimples (pustular dermatitis) occurring around the mouth and/or anus, (2) diarrhea, and (3) abnormal nails (nail dystrophy). In the acute phase, irritability and emotional disturbances are evident due to wasting (atrophy) of the brain cortex. It is important to recognize and treat this disorder.
The acquired form of this disorder generates similar symptoms. Acquired AE sometimes results from special intravenous nutritional programs that are prepared without the appropriate amount of zinc.
Supplemental zinc usually eliminates the symptoms.
Acrodermatitis enteropathica is characterized by chronic diarrhea which may be mild or severe, and the presence of fatty substances in the feces (steatorrhea). In the congenital form symptoms start gradually, frequently at the time of weaning of an infant. The skin around body openings such as the mouth, anus, and eyes, and the skin on elbows, knees, hands, and feet become inflamed. Skin lesions are usually blistered (vesicobullous) and after drying out become psoriasis-like. The skin around the nails may also be inflamed and the nail may be abnormal due to malnourished tissue. Hair loss on the scalp, eyelids, and eyebrows may be total (alopecia). Inflammation of the membrane that lines the eyelid (conjunctivitis), usually also occurs.
The blood zinc level in people with the congenital form of this disorder is abnormally low. A zinc-binding factor produced by the pancreas and present in human milk may be lacking. Breast-fed infants of women with acrodermatitis enteropathica may also develop lowered blood levels of zinc with other symptoms of this disorder, because the milk is deficient in the proper amount of the zinc- binding factor.
In the acute phase of AE, brain cortex atrophy may cause irritability and mental disturbances. With treatment, patients with acrodermatitis enteropathica can lead normal lives.
Frequently, long remissions may occur, usually starting during puberty. However, in rare cases, women may have a recurrence of the disorder during pregnancy.
The congenital form of acrodermatitis enteropathica is transmitted as an autosomal recessive genetic disorder. It appears to be the result of mutations in the SLC39A4 gene.
Genetic diseases are determined by a combination of genes for a particular trait that are on the chromosomes received from the father and the mother.
Recessive genetic disorders occur when an individual inherits the same abnormal gene for the same trait from each parent. If an individual receives one normal gene and one gene for the disease, the person will be a carrier for the disease, but usually will not show symptoms. The risk for two carrier parents to both pass the defective gene and, therefore, have an affected child is 25% with each pregnancy. The risk to have a child who is a carrier like the parents is 50% with each pregnancy. The chance for a child to receive normal genes from both parents and be genetically normal for that particular trait is 25%. The risk is the same for males and females.
All individuals carry a few abnormal genes. Parents who are close relatives (consanguineous) have a higher chance than unrelated parents to both carry the same abnormal gene, which increases the risk to have children with a recessive genetic disorder.
Some scientists theorize that another form of acrodermatitis enteropathica may be an autoimmune disorder, caused when the body’s natural defenses (antibodies) against invading organisms, for unknown reasons, suddenly begin to attack healthy tissue. The issue has not been resolved.
The congenital form of arodermatitis enteropathica is a rare disorder beginning during infancy. The incidence is about 1 in 500,000 births and the condition affects males and females in equal numbers. Healthy breast-fed infants of female patients with the disorder can also become affected. The acquired form of AE is rare because in recent years zinc supplements have been added to the parenteral nutrition regimen, although acquired forms are more common in some regions such as Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa where gastro-intestinal malabsorption syndrome are more frequent.
Acrodermatitis enteropathica is treated with zinc supplements in the form of zinc sulfate. These supplements should be given as soon as diagnosis of the disorder is made and they have to be continued for life. The drug Diodoquin (iodoquinol) is another treatment that usually clears up symptoms within a week. If the disorder is caused by intravenous feeding, adding zinc supplements to the nutritional regimen can prevent and/or clear up manifestations of AE.
Genetic counseling is recommended for families of patients with the congenital form of acrodermatitis enteropathica.
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