Atopic Dermatitis: Epidemiology & Beyond

By Jonathan I. Silverberg, MD, PhD, MPH

The global prevalence of atopic dermatitis (AD) has been estimated at about 15% to 20% in pediatric and 1% to 10% of adult populations. The prevalence has increased in the past few decades in many regions.

Atopic Dermatitis Prevalence

Figure 1. Reported prevalence rates of AD vary between adults and children and, for pediatric patients, are higher in developing nations than the industrialized world

It was thought that AD prevalence has increased primarily in the developed world, but it is not possible to draw clear lines of demarcation.1 Sometimes national variations can be striking and seem to defy explanation.

For example, among pediatric patients in the age range of 6 to 7 years, the prevalence of AD was, from lowest to highest, 0.9% in India and 22.5% in Ecuador.2 Among older children (aged 13 to 14), prevalence was lower in China, Asia-Pacific, the Middle East, India, and parts of Latin America but higher in some parts of Africa, Northern and Eastern Europe, and Oceania.2 The prevalence rates for AD vary broadly by developed versus developing nation and are higher for children than adults, see Figure 1.

Factors that may help to explain the global variations in AD prevalence:

  • Genetic factors
  • Environmental factors
  • Microbial exposures
  • Immune dysfunction
  • Definitions of AD, eczema, diagnostic criteria3

Most cases of childhood AD start in in the first five years of life. Approximately, 20-50% of childhood AD persists into adulthood.4 However, adult onset AD is quite common, with one in four adults with AD report adult-onset of their disease.5

Emerging data suggest that family structure may play a role in AD rates. Using multivariable logistic regression and adjusting for socio-demographic factors, it was found that US children from single-adult households, families with a mother but no father present, families with unmarried mothers, and families with non-biological fathers had increased odds of developing AD.6 Other risk factors for AD include cigarette smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke.7 Moreover, both adults and children with AD have higher rates of mental health symptoms, such as depression and anxiety.8,9

AD is characterized by a dysregulation of the immune system and a disruption in the skin’s barrier function. These conditions may set the stage for AD-associated comorbidities. Some of these comorbidities may be interrelated and their exact association with AD may not be yet entirely elucidated.10

  • Cutaneous infections, including extra-cutaneous infections (such as sepsis)
  • Disturbed sleep, sleep inefficiency, fatigue
  • Cardiovascular conditions, such as atherosclerosis, myocardial infarction, congestive heart failure
  • Cerebrovascular disorders, including stroke
  • Obesity
  • Hypertension
  • Hyperlipidemia
  • Diabetes type II

The burden of AD is not trivial. Patients experience severe and sometimes relentless pruritus, may have skin pain11 experience sleep and mental health disturbances, and suffer from an unsightly rash that may cause embarrassment and social isolation. Most AD patients (88%) report the daily presence of itchy skin and 69% report that the itchiness lasts at least 12 hours a day. Fifty percent of AD patients report pain accompanies pruritus and 69% describe the itchiness as being severe or unbearable. Most AD patients (90%) report that their AD disrupts sleep at least one night per week.12-14

AD is a highly prevalent condition associated with serious comorbidities, a high disease burden, and great costs to the healthcare system.




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  14. O’Neill JL, Chan YH, Rapp SR, Yosipovitch G. Differences in itch characteristics between psoriasis and atopic dermatitis patients: results of a web-based questionnaire. Acta dermato-venereologica. 2011;91(5):537-540.