Specific and nonspecific obstructive lung disease in childhood: causes of changes in the prevalence of asthma

Environ Health Perspect. 2000 Aug;108 Suppl 4(Suppl 4):725-31. doi: 10.1289/ehp.00108s4725.


Reversible airway obstruction in childhood includes two major groups of patients: those with recurrent wheezing following bronchiolitis in early childhood, and those with allergic asthma, which represents an increasingly large proportion of cases through the school years. Over the last 40 years of the 20th century, allergic asthma has increased in many countries and in relation to several different allergens. Although this increase has differed in magnitude in different countries and also in the social groups most affected, it has had several features in common. The increase generally started between 1960 and 1970, has been progressive since then, and has continued into the 1990s without a defined peak. Among children 5-18 years of age, the increase has predominantly been among allergic individuals. Theories about the causes of the increase in asthma have focused on two scenarios: a) that changes in houses combined with increased time spent indoors have increased exposure to relevant allergens, or b) that changes in diet, antibiotic use, immunizations, and the pattern of infections in childhood have led to a change in immune responsiveness such that a larger section of the population makes T(H)2, rather than T(H)1 responses including IgE antibodies to inhalant allergens. There are, however, problems with each of these theories and, in particular, none of the proposed changes can explain the progressive nature of the increase over 40 years. The fact that the change in asthma has much in common with epidemic increase in diseases such as Type II diabetes or obesity suggests that similar factors could be involved. Several lines of evidence are reviewed that suggest that the decline in physical activity of children, particularly those living in poverty in the United States, could have contributed to the rise in asthma. The hypothesis would be that the progressive loss of a lung-specific protective effect against wheezing has allowed allergic children to develop symptomatic asthma. What is clear is that current theories do not provide either an adequate explanation of the increase or a practical approach to reversing the current trend.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Allergens / adverse effects*
  • Animals
  • Asthma / epidemiology*
  • Asthma / etiology
  • Asthma / virology
  • Asthma, Exercise-Induced / epidemiology
  • Asthma, Exercise-Induced / etiology
  • Cats
  • Causality
  • Child
  • Cockroaches
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Immunologic
  • Environmental Exposure
  • Humans
  • Mites
  • Prevalence
  • Respiratory Syncytial Virus, Human
  • United States / epidemiology


  • Allergens