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SAMJ: South African Medical Journal

On-line version ISSN 2078-5135
Print version ISSN 0256-9574

SAMJ, S. Afr. med. j. vol.104 n.10 Pretoria Oct. 2014




Epidemiology of atopic dermatitis



G Todd

MB ChB, FCDerm (SA), PhD. Department of Medicine, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town, South Africa





Epidemiological studies on atopic dermatitis, primarily performed in children, have shown that the one-year prevalence rate of symptoms is population and area dependent. The few studies that have been done in South Africa among children of different age groups showed one-year prevalence rates of 1 - 13.3%. In adults, the burden of disease is significant. The prevalence rates and age-related percentages of those affected vary between the countries where studies were undertaken. While about 60% of cases show spontaneous clearing by puberty, the condition may recur in adults.



How common is atopic dermatitis and who gets it?

Much of the work on the epidemiology of atopic dermatitis (AD) has been done in children,[1-3] employing a variety of prevalence measures, including lifetime prevalence, point prevalence and one-year prevalence rates. The International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood (ISAAC) Phases One and Three[4,5] has documented that the one-year prevalence rate for AD symptoms varies worldwide, dependent on the population and geographical area studied (globally, nationally or locally). A comparison of the two studies shows a general decline or plateau one-year prevalence rate in the developed world, but an increasing prevalence in the developing world.[6]

Few studies address the prevalence of AD in South African (SA) populations. The Phase One ISAAC study[4] of 13 - 14-year-old schoolchildren in Cape Town showed an 8.3% one-year prevalence rate of AD symptoms, with 2.3% having severe disease (sleep disturbance for >1 night per week). The Phase Three follow-up study[5] documented an increased one-year prevalence of 13.3% among children of the same age. No children 6 - 7 years of age were included for SA in either study. In normal 3 - 11-year-olds, the one-year prevalence rate was 1 - 2.5% in amaXhosa children, depending on the methodology used to define AD and whether they came from urban or rural environments.[7]

While it is accepted that AD is a particular problem in children, the burden of disease is significant in adults. A study in adults in Scotland showed a 0.2% one-year period prevalence for AD in persons >40 years of age. Adults accounted for 38% of the AD population.[8] Studies from Nigeria and Ethiopia show that 40 - 60% of patients with AD were >19 years of age.[9,10]

Few incidence studies on the condition have been done; these were in cohorts of children in Europe.[3]


Natural history and severity

Studies on the natural history of AD record up to 60% spontaneous clearing by puberty.[3,8,11] However, AD may recur in adults and the risk is associated with a family history, early onset, severity and persistence of childhood AD and presence of mucosal atopy.[8] In adults the clinical picture may be altered: patients presenting with hand dermatitis were possibly exposed to additional insults such as irritants (wet work, detergents, chemicals and solvents) or head and neck involvement.[12]

The concept of the 'atopic march', where children with AD develop mucosal forms of atopic disease,[13] has been challenged by some cohort studies.[14] An early wheeze and a specific sensitisation pattern (wheat, cat, mite, soy and birch) were predictors of wheezing at school age in a German-birth cohort study, irrespective of the presence of AD. The development of rhinoconjunctivitis is more strongly associated with AD than asthma.[15] It is probable that there are many subsets of the AD phenotype.

Studies in Europe assessing the severity of AD in children revealed that 84% had mild, 14% moderate and 2% severe disease.[16] In adult cohorts, those who had severe disease accounted for 12%, using the scoring AD (SCORAD) system.[12] In a Japanese population survey, 70 - 90% of cases were mild, dependent on age group. Moderate to severe AD occurred predominantly in early adolescence and adulthood.[17]




1. Diepgen T. Is the prevalence of atopic dermatitis increasing? In: Williams HC, ed. Atopic Dermatitis. The Epidemiology, Causes and Prevention of Atopic Dermatitis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000:96-112.         [ Links ]

2. Williams HC. Epidemiology of atopic dermatitis. Clin Expt Dermatol 2000;25:522-529. []        [ Links ]

3. National Collaborating Centre for Women's and Children's Health (UK). Atopic Eczema in Children. Management of Atopic Eczema in Children from Birth up to the Age of 12 Years. NICE Clinical Guidelines, No. 57. London: RCOG Press, 2007.         [ Links ]

4. Williams H, Robertson C, Stewart A, et al. Worldwide variations in the prevalence of symptoms of atopic dermatitis in the International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood. J Allergy Clin Immunol 1999;103:125-138. []        [ Links ]

5. Asher MI, Montefort S, Bjorkstein B, et al. Worldwide time trends in the prevalence of symptoms of asthma, allergic rhinoconjunctivitis, and dermatitis in childhood: ISAAC Phase One and Three repeat multicountry cross-sectional surveys. Lancet 2006;368:733-743. []        [ Links ]

6. Williams H, Stewart A, Von Mutius E, et al Is dermatitis really on the increase worldwide? J Allergy Clin Immunol 2008;121:947-954. []        [ Links ]

7. Chalmers DA, Todd G, Saxe N, et al. Validation of the UK Working Party criteria for atopic dermatitis in a Xhosa-speaking African population. Br J Dermatol 2007;156:111-116. []        [ Links ]

8. Herd RM, Tidman MJ, Prescott RJ, Hunter JAA. Prevalence of atopic dermatitis in the community: The Lothian atopic dermatitis study. Br J Dermatol 1996;135:18-19.         [ Links ]

9. Nnoruka EN. Current epidemiology of atopic dermatitis in south-eastern Nigeria. Int J Dermatol 2004;43:739-744. []        [ Links ]

10. Yemaneberhan H, Flohr C, Lewis SA, et al. Prevalence and associated factors of atopic dermatitis symptoms in rural and urban Ethiopia. Clin Exp Allergy 2004;34:779-785. []        [ Links ]

11. Williams HC. Atopic dermatitis. N Engl J Med 2005;352:2314-2324. []        [ Links ]

12. Sandström Falk MH, Faergemann J. Atopic dermatitis in adults: Does it disappear with age? Acta Derm Venereol 2006;86:135-139.         [ Links ]

13. Zheng T, Yu J, Oh MH, Zhu Z. The atopic march: Progression from atopic dermatitis to allergic rhinitis and asthma. Allergy Asthma Immunol Res 2011;3:67-73. []        [ Links ]

14. Williams H, Flohr C. How epidemiology has challenged 3 prevailing concepts about atopic dermatitis. J Allergy Clin Immunol 2006;118:209-213. []        [ Links ]

15. Ait-Khaled N, Odhiambo J, Pearce N, et al. Prevalence of symptoms of asthma, rhinitis and dermatitis in 13-to-14-year-old children in Africa: The International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood Phase III. Allergy 2007;62:247-258. []        [ Links ]

16. Emerson RM, Williams HC, Allen BR. Severity distribution of atopic dermatitis in the community and its relationship to secondary referral. Br J Dermatol 1998;139:73-76. []        [ Links ]

17. Katayama I, Kohno Y, Akiyama K, et al. Japanese guideline for atopic dermatitis. Allergol Int 2011;60:205-220. []        [ Links ]



G Todd

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