Background: The relationship between early allergen exposure, sensitization, and development of atopic disease remains controversial. In 1993, extremely high levels of birch pollen were recorded in Stockholm, Sweden, creating the unique opportunity to study children with different exposures during infancy.
Objective: We sought to assess the influence of early high-dose exposure to an inhalant allergen (birch pollen) on sensitization and development of atopic disease in children.
Methods: A total of 583 children with atopic heredity born in Stockholm in February through April 1992, 1993, or 1994 were investigated at age 4.5 to 5 years. The children were examined and underwent skin prick testing with inhalant and food allergens. IgE antibodies (RAST) against birch pollen and recombinant birch pollen allergen (rBet v 1) were analyzed in serum.
Results: The children born in 1993 (high-dose exposure at 0-3 months) were more often sensitized (ie, positive skin prick test response) to birch pollen than the children born in 1994 (low-dose exposure; 17.8% and 8.8%, respectively; odds ratio [OR], 2.4; 95% CI, 1.2-4.6). A tendency in the same direction was seen for children born in 1992 (high-dose exposure at 12-15 months; OR, 1.7; 95% CI, 0.9-3.2). The results were supported by the RAST analyses. The prevalence of bronchial asthma, allergic rhinoconjunctivitis, and atopic dermatitis did not differ between the birth-year groups. However, the prevalence of pollen- and animal dander-induced allergic asthma was increased in the children born in 1993 (OR, 2.6; 95% CI, 1.2-5.6). An interaction between early high-dose exposure to birch pollen and cat in the household was suggested for sensitization to cat (P =.06).
Conclusion: Exposure to high levels of birch pollen in infancy increases the risk of sensitization to the same allergen, as well as the risk of allergic asthma.