The relationships between atopy, rhinitis and asthma: pathophysiological considerations

Curr Opin Allergy Clin Immunol. 2003 Feb;3(1):51-5. doi: 10.1097/00130832-200302000-00009.


Purpose of review: A close relationship has been described between atopy, allergic rhinitis and asthma. The purpose of this work was to review recent data that have become available on the interactions between these conditions and the ways in which they influence one another.

Recent findings: Recent findings support previous observations suggesting that atopic dermatitis and rhinitis often accompany or precede the development of asthma. Further data support the notion that early-life exposure to domestic animals, a farming environment, passive smoking, and being raised in a large family, may be protective against the development of atopy and/or allergic diseases, although this seems modulated by genetic factors. Furthermore, the appearance of house-dust-mite-specific immunoglobulin E antibodies in early childhood has been identified as a major risk factor for the development of asthma in children with atopic dermatitis; and the association between sensitization to specific allergens and airway hyperresponsiveness was reported to be the strongest for indoor allergens such as house-dust-mite and cat. Allergen exposure can increase airway responsiveness in non-asthmatic subjects with allergic rhinitis and is associated with an increase in markers of lower airway inflammation, particularly with indoor allergens. Furthermore, nasal allergen provocation can induce bronchial inflammation and vice versa, suggesting close interrelations between upper and lower airways.

Summary: In summary, the recent observations on the relationships between atopy, rhinitis and asthma support the hypothesis of a unique systemic condition with variable manifestations, which may develop following an imbalance between T helper cell types 1 and 2 lymphocyte populations. The latter may be influenced by environmental exposure in early life. Upper- and lower-airway inflammatory events influence each other, supporting the concept of 'united airways'. Further studies should look at the relationships between these conditions to identify individuals at high-risk of developing them and develop strategies to possibly prevent their onset.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Asthma / immunology
  • Asthma / physiopathology*
  • Bronchial Hyperreactivity / immunology
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Humans
  • Hypersensitivity, Immediate / immunology
  • Hypersensitivity, Immediate / physiopathology*
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Rhinitis, Allergic, Perennial / immunology
  • Rhinitis, Allergic, Perennial / physiopathology*