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Advances in Dermatology and Allergology/Postępy Dermatologii i Alergologii
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Original paper

Clinical characteristics and epidemiology of chronic urticaria: a nationwide, multicentre study on 1091 patients

Alina Jankowska-Konsur
,
Adam Reich
,
Jacek Szepietowski

Adv Dermatol Allergol 2019; XXXVI (2): 184-191
Online publish date: 2019/05/14
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Introduction

Urticaria is a common disease characterized by sudden development of wheals, angioedema or both [1]. Chronic urticaria (CU) manifests by reoccurrence of typical lesions for at least 6 weeks or longer and affects up to 1% of general population at any given time [2, 3]. According to the latest EAACI/GA2LEN/EDF/WAO guidelines, it can be classified either as a spontaneous subtype (CSU) or as an inducible subtype, triggered mostly by physical factors (inducible urticaria – IU) [1]. Epidemiological data on CU, especially its clinical and demographic determinants as well as health care system patterns, are still scarce in the literature.

Aim

The aim of this large, nationwide, multicentre study was to provide more insights regarding the demographic data, clinical manifestations, disease activity/damage, laboratory abnormalities and treatment of urticaria in the Polish population.

Material and Methods

This nationwide, multicentre, cross-sectional questionnaire-based study was performed under the auspices of the Polish Dermatological Society. A total of 108 physicians dealing with patients suffering from allergic diseases were invited to participate in the study. All participating physicians were asked to recruit 10 consecutive patients suffering from chronic urticaria. Physicians were invited from different regions of Poland to achieve a good representation of patients from the whole Poland. Six (5.6%) invited physicians refused to participate. The remaining 102 (94.4%) physicians (dermatologists and allergists) recruited a total of 1091 patients with CU. The study was approved by the Ethics Committee at the Wroclaw Medical University and was performed in accordance with the principles of the Declaration of Helsinki. All patients agreed voluntarily to participate in the study.

The 27-item semi-open questionnaire was completed for each patient based on medical history and physical examination during a routine outpatient consultation (Appendix 1). Questions referred to epidemiological data, clinical characteristics of urticaria, as well as management, treatment and outcome of the disease. For the study purpose we used the EAACI/GA2LEN/EDF/WAO guidelines for the definition, classification and diagnosis of urticaria (2013 update) [1].

Statistical analysis

Statistical analysis of all data was performed using Statistica 12.0 software (Dell Software, USA). Differences between compared patient groups were verified using χ2 test with Yates correction, if necessary. Correlation data were analysed by Spearman rank correlations test. Values of p < 0.05 were considered statistically significant.

Results

A total of 1091 adults (709 women and 382 men) with CU have been included into the study. Regarding their age, 74 (6.8%) patients were below the age of 20 years, 231 (21.2%) were aged between 21 and 30 years, 263 (24.1%) – 31–40 years, 211 (19.3%) – 41–50 years, 158 (14.5%) – 51–60 years, 127 (11.6%) – 61–70 years, 22 (2.0%) – 71–80 years and remaining 5 (0.5%) were older than 80 years. IU was diagnosed in 35.1% (n = 383: 235 women, 148 men), while CSU in 61.1% of patients (n = 667: 442 women, 225 men), however, 3.8% of participants (n = 41: 32 women, 9 men) had both CSU and IU.

Among IU patients the most common types of urticaria were factitious urticaria (n = 128; 11.7%), cholinergic urticaria (n = 83, 7.6%), delayed pressure urticaria (n = 44, 4.0%), solar urticaria (n = 38, 3.5%) and cold urticaria (n = 33, 3.0%). No significant differences were observed between women and men regarding the subtype of IU, except cholinergic urticaria which was significantly more prevalent among men (n = 62, 16.2%) compared to women (n = 21, 3.0%) (p < 0.001). The exact epidemiologic and clinical data are collected in Table 1.

Table 1

Epidemiological and clinical data of the patients with chronic urticaria

ParameterCSUIUCSU and IUP-value
Sex:
 Males225 (33.7%)148 (38.6%)9 (22.0%)0.06
 Females442 (66.3%)235 (61.4%)32 (78.0%)
Age [years]:
 ≤ 2035 (5.2%)38 (9.2%)1 (2.4%)0.03
 21–30132 (19.8%)92 (24.0%)7 (17.1%)
 31–40165 (24.7%)86 (22.5%)12 (29.3%)
 41–50131 (19.6%)73 (19.1%)7 (17.1%)
 51–60100 (15.0%)48 (12.5%)10 (24.4%)
 61–7089 (13.3%)35 (9.1%)3 (7.3%)
 71–8014 (2.1%)7 (1.8%)1 (2.4%)
 ≥ 811 (0.1%)4 (1.0%)0 (0%)
Concomitant allergic diseases:
 Allergic rhinitis211 (31.6%)102 (26.6%)13 (31.7%)0.23
 Bronchial asthma89 (13.3%)46 (12.0%)3 (7.3%)0.48
 Atopic dermatitis68 (10.2%)37 (9.7%)3 (7.3%)0.82
 Food allergy45 (6.7%)14 (3.7%)3 (7.3%)0.1
Family history of urticaria:
 Yes78 (11.7%)23 (6.0%)8 (19.5%)0.001
 No589 (88.3%)360 (94.0%)33 (80.5%)
Frequency of wheal outbreaks:
 Every day73 (10.9%)66 (17.2%)6 (14.6%)0.09
 Several times a week116 (17.4%)69 (18.0%)6 (14.6%)
 Several times a month186 (27.9%)89 (23.2%)8 (19.5%)
 Once a month140 (21.0%)62 (16.2%)8 (19.5%)
 Less than once a month146 (21.9%)88 (23.0%)11 (26.8%)
Extent of the skin lesions:
 Localized266 (39.9%)210 (54.8%)16 (39.0%)< 0.001
 Generalized387 (58.0%)163 (42.6%)23 (56.1%)
Swelling of the tongue and/or lips:
 Yes181 (27.1%)88 (23.0%)14 (34.1%)< 0.05
 No481 (72.1%)290 (75.7%)25 (61.0%)
Duration of the urticaria episode:
 A few minutes67 (10.0%)103 (26.9%)4 (9.8%)< 0.001
 A few hours373 (55.9%)195 (50.9%)21 (51.2%)
 All day117 (17.5%)46 (12.0%)9 (22.0%)
 A few days108 (16.2%)37 (9.7%)5 (12.2%)
The most troublesome symptoms:
 Pruritus513 (76.9%)288 (75.2%)26 (63.4%)0.14
 Burning161 (24.1%)82 (21.4%)15 (36.6%)0.08
 The presence of the skin lesions241 (36.1%)135 (35.2%)16 (39.0%)0.88
 Swelling of the tongue and lips82 (12.3%)55 (14.4%)8 (19.5%)0.31

[i] CSU – chronic spontaneous urticaria, IU – inducible urticaria.

Among patients with CU, 517 (47.4%) subjects also suffered from other allergic diseases, sometimes having even more than one such disease (allergic rhinitis – n = 326, bronchial asthma – n = 138, atopic dermatitis – n = 108, nutrition allergy – n = 62). Taking into account the course of the disease we found that the daily occurrence of new wheals was slightly more common in IU than in CSU, but the difference was not significant (p = 0.09). However, the wheals in IU resolved faster than in CSU patients (p < 0.001) (Table 1). In contrast, the lesions in CSU were usually more widespread (p < 0.001) and were also more commonly accompanied by angioedema (p < 0.05) (for details see Table 1). An average number of medical consultations/year due to urticaria was 3.0 ±1.7 in CSU and 2.9 ±1.8 in IU (p = 0.36). Patients considered pruritus (75.8%), followed by the presence of skin lesions (35.9%), burning sensations (23.6%) and angioedema (13.3%) to be the most bothersome symptoms of urticaria. Patients with the first episode of urticaria sought help primarily from general practitioners (52.9%), followed by dermatologists (25.5%) and internal medicine specialists (14.1%). Allergists and dermatologists were the most common specialists (38.6% and 33.0%, respectively) to whom patients were referred to by other physicians. The disease diagnosis was established predominantly by dermatologists (52.7%) and allergists (43.1%). Analysing the medication pattern we noticed that the second generation of antihistamines were used most commonly as the first-line treatment, followed by the first generation of antihistamines, regardless of the type of CU (Table 2).

Table 2

Treatment regimens and outcomes in chronic urticaria

VariableCSUIUCSU and IUP-value
Treatment at first diagnosis:
 First-generation antihistamines255 (38.2%)125 (32.6%)16 (39.0%)0.18
 Second-generation antihistamines522 (78.3%)285 (74.4%)25 (61.0%)0.02
 H2 antagonists40 (6.0%)23 (6.0%)4 (9.8%)0.62
 Leukotriene receptor antagonist45 (6.7%)15 (3.9%)1 (2.4%)0.11
 Corticosteroids229 (34.3%)94 (24.5%)13 (31.7%)< 0.01
 Cyclosporine A8 (1.2%)1 (0.3%)1 (2.4%)0.18
Treatment in the past:
 First-generation antihistamines421 (63.1%)212 (55.4%)27 (65.9%)0.04
 Second-generation antihistamines603 (90.4%)332 (86.7%)30 (73.2%)0.001
 H2 antagonists119 (17.8%)50 (13.1%)17 (41.5%)< 0.001
 Leukotriene receptor antagonist108 (16.2%)58 (15.1%)7 (17.1%)0.88
 Corticosteroids355 (53.2%)151 (39.4%)21 (51.2%)< 0.001
 Cyclosporine A22 (3.3%)7 (1.8%)2 (4.9%)0.28
Antihistamine dosage:
 Registered doses334 (50.1%)218 (56.9%)12 (29.3%)0.001
 Doses higher than registered330 (49.5%)167 (43.6%)28 (68.3%)< 0.01
 Dose twice higher than registered194 (29.1%)114 (29.8%)17 (41.5%)0.24
 Dose three times higher than registered47 (7.0%)18 (4.7%)2 (4.9%)0.29
 Dose four times higher than registered99 (14.8%)40 (10.4%)10 (24.4%)0.02
Efficacy of the treatment:
 Resolution of the symptoms218 (32.7%)138 (36.0%)8 (19.5%)0.08
 Reduction of the symptoms320 (48.0%)178 (46.5%)20 (48.8%)
 Slight improvement107 (16.0%)42 (11.0%)9 (22.0%)
 No effect11 (1.7%)11 (2.8%)1 (2.4%)
 Not applicable4 (0.6%)5 (1.3%)1 (2.4%)
Absenteeism at work:
 No552 (82.8%)331 (86.4%)30 (73.2%)0.05
 Yes115 (17.2%)52 (13.6%)11 (26.8%)
  (if yes, how many days/year?):
  1–5 days24 (3.6%)14 (3.7%)3 (7.3%)
  6–10 days25 (3.7%)13 (3.4%)3 (7.3%)
  11–14 days30 (4.5%)8 (2.1%)2 (4.9%)
  15–20 days13 (1.9%)7 (1.8%)2 (4.9%)
  21–30 days14 (2.1%)9 (2.3%)2 (4.9%)
  > 3017 (2.5%)8 (2.1%)1 (2.4%)

[i] CSU – chronic spontaneous urticaria, IU – inducible urticaria.

Antihistamines were used significantly more frequently in the registered dose in the IU group, while in the CSU group antihistamines were used significantly more often in higher doses than the registered ones (p < 0.01 for both comparisons). Short-term systemic steroids were used in 53.2% of patients with CSU and in 39.4% with IU, and the difference was statistically significant (p < 0.001). Regarding the treatment outcomes, complete resolution of skin symptoms was observed in 33.4% of CU patients (32.7% in CSU, 36.0% in IU). The CU was the cause of absence from work in 16.3% of patients, of whom 45.5% had the sick leave of between 6 and 14 days, 26.4% of patients were on sick leave for 15 to 30 days and 14.6% of patients were absent from work due to CU for more than a month.

Discussion

Our study provides a number of new epidemiological data concerning CU. As to the aetiology, CSU represents more than 60% of all cases of CU. These results are consistent with data published previously (70–82% of the cases) [47]. Inducible urticaria occurred in approximately one third of patients, however, its prevalence varies greatly among the studies from 10% even to almost 100% [811]. As has been previously reported, we observed a significantly higher prevalence (65%) of urticaria in women, which can be partially explained by a higher incidence of autoimmune diseases in women than in men [8, 12]. On the other hand, cholinergic urticaria was significantly more common in men. Other studies provide inconsistent data concerning the sex in this subset of urticaria. The study of Kim et al. [13] showed a male predominance, while others have reported that both sexes were affected to the same degree [14, 15].

Compared to the general population, wherein the average prevalence of allergic rhinitis is approximately 25%, the prevalence of allergic rhinitis in CU patients seems to be higher [16]. Food allergy was reported in 5.7% of patients. Similarly, in Kulthanan’s paper food allergy was found in 4% of the patients with CU [17]. The impact of nutrients on chronic urticaria is not entirely understood. It is believed that pseudoallergic reactions or aspirin idiosyncrasy are more likely to occur in CU, whereas IgE-mediated reactions may play a role in acute urticaria.

Chronic urticaria significantly impairs quality of life of the patients. In the analysed group the most troublesome symptom of the disease was pruritus, followed by the presence of skin lesions. Other studies confirm our results showing itching as the leading bothersome symptom of CU [12].

In our report we also examined the utilization of the healthcare system pattern. In the analysed group more than a half of all patients sought help from the general practitioners in the first place. However, in order to establish the precise diagnosis and treatment, 71.6% of the patients were subsequently referred to allergists and dermatologists. These data reflect the mechanism of functioning of the health care system in Poland, where the family doctor does not have the appropriate tools for detailed diagnosis of urticaria. In addition, patients need a referral to a specialist and the time to see a specialist is much longer than to see a family doctor. A similar proceeding pattern was observed in Spanish population, but in contrast to our study, a large proportion of Spanish patients were treated in emergency departments [8].

The treatment of CU is a major challenge for physicians of various specialties. Numerous studies pointed the usefulness of the second-generation H1-antihistamines as the first-line treatment of CU and, as also shown in our study, this was the therapy of choice for the majority of physicians, regardless of the specialty. Surprisingly, more than one-third of physicians choose the sedative first-generation H1-antihistamines and systemic steroids alone or in combination as the initial therapy. A similar drug administration pattern was reported by Weller et al. [18] who found that approximately 20% of German specialists (mainly dermatologists and allergists) were using the first-generation H1-antihistamines or steroids as the first-line treatment for CU. On the other hand, according to a large multicentre study conducted among Italian specialists (dermatologists and allergists) it was demonstrated that second-generation H1-antihistamines in the registered dose were the most common treatment of choice in Italy [19]. The authors of both studies indicated that the treatment choice was closely associated with the specialist knowledge of current treatment guidelines.

Taking into account the type of CU, we noticed that both, the second-generation H1-antihistamines in higher than registered doses as well as systemic steroids were prescribed significantly more often in CSU than in IU, which may mirror the physicians’ conviction that this variant of urticaria is more difficult to control by standard regimen. In our study, the applied treatment induced complete remission of skin lesions in up to 40% of patients and significant remission of the symptoms was observed in further 47.5%. However, in CU, treatment results are frequently unsatisfactory, both for doctors and patients [20]. In our study, 16.6% of patients demonstrated no improvement after the treatment or the remission was inconsiderable.

Conclusions

Chronic urticaria constitutes a significant economic burden on society in terms of the absence from work and production lost. According to our data, urticaria was the cause of absenteeism in almost every fifth patient suffering from CU. In contrast, in Spanish population, only 8.7% of patients seeking medical attention due to urticaria, required an absence from work [8]. Numerous data indicated that the use of antihistamines in the registered doses allows symptom reduction in less than 50% of CSU patients, and increased dosage of these drugs increases the proportion of responders [18, 21, 22]. However, there is a group of patients in whom it is difficult to obtain satisfactory improvement. In our study there were no patients treated with omalizumab, because the drug is still difficult to obtain in Poland and it is not routinely used, but we suspect that the wider use of omalizumab in selected patients could further improve the treatment results.

Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank all physicians who agreed to participate in this study. This study was supported by the unrestrictive educational grant provided by Novartis Poland.

Conflict of interest

This study was supported by an educational grant provided by Novartis Poland.

References

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Champion RH, Roberts SO, Carpenter RG, Roger JH , authors. Urticaria and angio-oedema. A review of 554 patients. Br J Dermatol. 1969. 81:p. 588–97

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Ferrer M , author. Epidemiology, healthcare, resources, use and clinical features of different types of urticarial. Alergologica 2005. J Investig Allergol Clin Immunol. 2009. 19 Suppl 2:p. 21–6

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Kozel MM, Mekkes JR, Bossuyt PM, Bos JD , authors. Natural course of physical and chronic urticaria and angioedema in 220 patients. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2001. 45:p. 387–91

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Nettis E, Pannofino A, D’Aprile C, et al. , authors. Clinical and aetiological aspects in urticaria and angio-oedema. Br J Dermatol. 2003. 148:p. 501–6

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Gattey N, Bahrani B, Hull PR , authors. Chronic spontaneous urticaria: a questionnaire survey. J Cutan Med Surg. 2016. 20:p. 241–3

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Kim JE, Eun YS, Park YM, et al. , authors. Clinical characteristics of cholinergic urticaria in Korea. Ann Dermatol. 2014. 26:p. 189–94

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Godse K, Farooqui S, Nadkarni N, et al. , authors. Prevalence of cholinergic urticaria in Indian adults. Indian Dermatol Online J. 2013. 4:p. 62–3

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Samoliñski B , author. Alergiczny nieżyt nosa w œwietle badania ECAP. Alergia. 2009. 2:p. 41–4

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Appendices

Appendix 1

Questionnaire on chronic idiopathic urticaria

Data about the patient:

Age, sex: .........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

  1. Diagnosis:

    □ Chronic physical urticaria□ Heat urticaria
    □ Symptomatic dermographism□ Solar urticaria
    □ Delayed pressure urticaria□ Cholinergic urticaria
    □ Cold urticaria□ Other urticaria type

  2. Co-existing allergic diseases:

    □ Asthma  □ Atopic dermatitis  □ Allergic rhinitis  □ Food allergy  □ Other chronic immunological diseases

  3. Other comorbidities (please specify): .......................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

  4. Drugs used chronically, how long and for what reason?........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

  5. Does/did the patient smoke cigarettes?

    □ Yes – number of pack-years ............................................................. □ No

  6. Urticaria in the family:

    □ Yes (specify family member) ...........................................................  □ No

  7. Allergic immune diseases in the family (who and what disease?) .....................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

  8. How long has the patient sufferred from urticaria? .......................................................................................................................................................

  9. How much time has elapsed since the first symptoms of the disease appeared before the patient came to the doctor? .................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

  10. What specialist did the patient see first?

    □ General practitioner □ Internal diseases specialist □ Dermatologist  □ Allergist

    □ Other specialties (specify) ............................................................

  11. Did the doctor to whom the patient came in the first place, send him to another specialist?

    □ Yes (specify)………………………………….................................………………  □ No

  12. Who diagnosed urticaria and started the treatment?

    □ General practitioner  □ Internal diseases specialist  □ Dermatologist   □ Allergist

    □ Other specialties (specify) .............................................................

  13. What was the time between the appearance of first symptoms and the correct diagnosis? ............................................................................

  14. Were there any diagnostic tests performed in order to establish the diagnosis of urticaria?

    □ Yes  □ No

    □ If yes, please specify:

    □ Prick tests  □ Specific IgE level  □ Patch tests

    □ Peripheral blood count  □ Serum autoantibodies  □ Physical tests

    □ Autologous serum skin tests  □ Aspirin provocation test

    □ Other (specify) ..................................................................................

  15. Was the patient hospitalized due to urticaria?

    □ Yes    □ No

    If yes, how many times? .....................................................................

  16. Was the patient on sick leave due to urticaria?

    □ Yes. If yes, how many days a year? ....................................................  □ No

  17. Was the urticaria accompanied by swelling of the lips, tongue or eyelids?

    □ Yes   □ No

  18. How often does urticaria appear?

    □ Once  □ Every day  □ At least several times a week  □ At least several times a month  □ At least once a month

    □ Less than once a month

  19. What is the extent of the wheals?

    □ Wheals on a limited area of the skin (e.g. one limb, abdomen, back)

    □ Wheals are spread on the skin of the whole body

  20. How long does the episode of urticaria last?

    □ A few minutes  □ A few hours  □ Whole day  □ A few days

  21. What is the patient’s most bothersome symptom of urticaria?

    □ Pruritus  □ Burning sensation  □ The presence of the lesions  □ Oedema of eyelids or lips

    □ Other (specify) .........................................................................................

  22. Is the episode of urticaria accompanied by symptoms from other organs?

    □ Yes. If yes, which ones? .........................................................................  □ No

  23. Which medications were used at the time of urticaria diagnosis?

    □ 1st generation antihistamines□ 2nd generation antihistamines
    □ H2 antagonists (e.g. ranitidine, cimetidine)□ Leukotriene receptor antagonists
    □ Corticosteroids□ Cyclosporine A
    □ Other immunosuppressive drugs□ Other drugs (specify) ............................................................................

  24. Which medications have been used for the treatment of hives?

    □ 1st generation antihistamines□ 2nd generation antihistamines
    □ H2 antagonists (e.g. ranitidine, cimetidine)□ Leukotriene receptor antagonists
    □ Corticosteroids□ Cyclosporine A
    □ Other immunosuppressive drugs□ Other drugs (specify) ............................................................................

  25. Which medications for urticaria are used at present?

    □ 1st generation antihistamines□ 2nd generation antihistamines
    □ H2 antagonists (e.g. ranitidine, cimetidine)□ Leukotriene receptor antagonists
    □ Corticosteroids□ Cyclosporine A
    □ Other immunosuppressive drugs□ Other drugs (specify) ............................................................................

  26. If the patient used antihistamines:

    □ Antihistamines were used in registered doses

    □ Antihistamines were used at doses higher than the registered doses:

    □ Twice higher dose than the registered dose

    □ Three times higher dose than the registered dose

    □ Four times higher dose than the registered dose

  27. Does the medical treatment result in clinical improvement?

    □ Yes, it results in complete resolution of urticaria symptoms

    □ Yes, it significantly reduces the symptoms of urticaria

    □ Yes, but the improvement is small

    □ No, the medical treatment does not affect the course of disease

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