In a systematic review and meta-analysis, Bahi Takkouche and colleagues examine the associations between exposure to tobacco smoke and allergic disorders in children and adults.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Allergic rhinitis, allergic dermatitis, and food allergy are extremely common diseases, especially among children, and are frequently associated to each other and to asthma. Smoking is a potential risk factor for these conditions, but so far, results from individual studies have been conflicting. The objective of this study was to examine the evidence for an association between active smoking (AS) or passive exposure to secondhand smoke and allergic conditions.
Methods and Findings
We retrieved studies published in any language up to June 30th, 2013 by systematically searching Medline, Embase, the five regional bibliographic databases of the World Health Organization, and ISI-Proceedings databases, by manually examining the references of the original articles and reviews retrieved, and by establishing personal contact with clinical researchers. We included cohort, case-control, and cross-sectional studies reporting odds ratio (OR) or relative risk (RR) estimates and confidence intervals of smoking and allergic conditions, first among the general population and then among children.
We retrieved 97 studies on allergic rhinitis, 91 on allergic dermatitis, and eight on food allergy published in 139 different articles. When all studies were analyzed together (showing random effects model results and pooled ORs expressed as RR), allergic rhinitis was not associated with active smoking (pooled RR, 1.02 [95% CI 0.92–1.15]), but was associated with passive smoking (pooled RR 1.10 [95% CI 1.06–1.15]). Allergic dermatitis was associated with both active (pooled RR, 1.21 [95% CI 1.14–1.29]) and passive smoking (pooled RR, 1.07 [95% CI 1.03–1.12]). In children and adolescent, allergic rhinitis was associated with active (pooled RR, 1.40 (95% CI 1.24–1.59) and passive smoking (pooled RR, 1.09 [95% CI 1.04–1.14]). Allergic dermatitis was associated with active (pooled RR, 1.36 [95% CI 1.17–1.46]) and passive smoking (pooled RR, 1.06 [95% CI 1.01–1.11]). Food allergy was associated with SHS (1.43 [1.12–1.83]) when cohort studies only were examined, but not when all studies were combined.
The findings are limited by the potential for confounding and bias given that most of the individual studies used a cross-sectional design. Furthermore, the studies showed a high degree of heterogeneity and the exposure and outcome measures were assessed by self-report, which may increase the potential for misclassification.
We observed very modest associations between smoking and some allergic diseases among adults. Among children and adolescents, both active and passive exposure to SHS were associated with a modest increased risk for allergic diseases, and passive smoking was associated with an increased risk for food allergy. Additional studies with detailed measurement of exposure and better case definition are needed to further explore the role of smoking in allergic diseases.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
The immune system protects the human body from viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens. Whenever a pathogen enters the body, immune system cells called T lymphocytes recognize specific molecules on its surface and release chemical messengers that recruit and activate other types of immune cells, which then attack the pathogen. Sometimes, however, the immune system responds to harmless materials (for example, pollen; scientists call these materials allergens) and triggers an allergic disease such as allergic rhinitis (inflammation of the inside of the nose; hay fever is a type of allergic rhinitis), allergic dermatitis (also known as eczema, a disease characterized by dry, itchy patches on the skin), and food allergy. Recent studies suggest that all these allergic (atopic) diseases are part of a continuous state called the “atopic march” in which individuals develop allergic diseases in a specific sequence that starts with allergic dermatitis during infancy, and progresses to food allergy, allergic rhinitis, and finally asthma (inflammation of the airways).
Why Was This Study Done?
Allergic diseases are extremely common, particularly in children. Allergic rhinitis alone affects 10%–30% of the world's population and up to 40% of children in some countries. Moreover, allergic diseases are becoming increasingly common. Allergic diseases affect the quality of life of patients and are financially costly to both patients and health systems. It is important, therefore, to identify the factors that cause or potentiate their development. One potential risk factor for allergic diseases is active or passive exposure to tobacco smoke. In some countries up to 80% of children are exposed to second-hand smoke so, from a public health point of view, it would be useful to know whether exposure to tobacco smoke is associated with the development of allergic diseases. Here, the researchers undertake a systematic review (a study that uses predefined criteria to identify all the research on a given topic) and a meta-analysis (a statistical approach for combining the results of several studies) to investigate this issue.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers identified 196 observational studies (investigations that observe outcomes in populations without trying to affect these outcomes in any way) that examined the association between smoke exposure and allergic rhinitis, allergic dermatitis, or food allergy. When all studies were analyzed together, allergic rhinitis was not associated with active smoking but was slightly associated with exposure to second-hand smoke. Specifically, compared to people not exposed to second-hand smoke, the pooled relative risk (RR) of allergic rhinitis among people exposed to second-hand smoke was 1.10 (an RR of greater than 1 indicates an increased risk of disease development in an exposed population compared to an unexposed population). Allergic dermatitis was associated with both active smoking (RR = 1.21) and exposure to second-hand smoke (RR = 1.07). In the populations of children and adolescents included in the studies, allergic rhinitis was associated with both active smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke (RRs of 1.40 and 1.09, respectively), as was allergic dermatitis (RRs of 1.36 and 1.06, respectively). Finally food allergy was associated with exposure to second-hand smoke (RR = 1.43) when cohort studies (a specific type of observational study) only were examined but not when all the studies were combined.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings provide limited evidence for a weak association between smoke exposure and allergic disease in adults but suggest that both active and passive smoking are associated with a modestly increased risk of allergic diseases in children and adolescents. The accuracy of these findings may be affected by the use of questionnaires to assess smoke exposure and allergic disease development in most of the studies in the meta-analysis and by the possibility that individuals exposed to smoke may have shared other characteristics that were actually responsible for their increased risk of allergic diseases. To shed more light on the role of smoking in allergic diseases, additional studies are needed that accurately measure exposure and outcomes. However, the present findings suggest that, in countries where many people smoke, 14% and 13% of allergic rhinitis and allergic dermatitis, respectively, among children may be attributable to active smoking. Thus, the elimination of active smoking among children and adolescents could prevent one in seven cases of allergic rhinitis and one in eight cases of allergic dermatitis in such countries.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001611.
The UK National Health Service Choices website provides information about allergic rhinitis, hay fever (including personal stories), allergic dermatitis (including personal stories), and food allergy (including personal stories)
The US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease provides information about allergic diseases
The UK not-for-profit organization Allergy UK provides information about all aspects of allergic diseases and a description of the atopic march
MedlinePlus encyclopedia has pages on allergic rhinitis and allergic dermatitis (in English and Spanish)
MedlinePlus provides links to further resources about allergies, eczema, and food allergy (in English and Spanish)