Background: Although asthma diagnosed by a physician is known to be related to serum IgE levels, it is not known whether there is a relation between the level of IgE and airway hyperresponsiveness to a methacholine challenge. The characteristics of asymptomatic persons that predispose them to airway hyperresponsiveness are also unknown.
Methods: We studied the relation between the serum total IgE level and airway hyperresponsiveness in the presence or absence of asthma and other atopic diseases in a birth cohort of children. Data from a questionnaire regarding respiratory symptoms, plus measurements of the serum total IgE level and airway responsiveness to inhaled methacholine, were obtained for 562 11-year-olds in New Zealand.
Results: The boys had a higher prevalence than the girls of current diagnosed asthma (13 percent vs. 6 percent), current symptoms of wheezing (22 percent vs. 15 percent), and airflow obstruction at base line (6 percent vs. 1 percent) and had a wider distribution of IgE levels, although mean IgE levels (120.8 IU per milliliter in the boys and 98.1 IU per milliliter in the girls) did not differ significantly between the sexes. The prevalence of diagnosed asthma was strongly related to the serum IgE level (P for trend less than 0.0001). No asthma was reported in children with IgE levels less than 32 IU per milliliter, whereas 36 percent of those with IgE levels greater than or equal to 1000 IU per milliliter were reported to have asthma. This relation with the serum IgE level was not explained by a concomitant diagnosis of allergic rhinitis or eczema. Airway hyperresponsiveness to a methacholine challenge also correlated very highly (P less than 0.0001) with the serum IgE level. This relation remained significant even after the exclusion of children with diagnosed asthma (P less than 0.0001) and of all children with a history of wheezing, allergic rhinitis, or eczema (P less than 0.0001).
Conclusions: Even in children who have been asymptomatic throughout their lives and have no history of atopic disease, airway hyperresponsiveness appears to be closely linked to an allergic diathesis, as reflected by the serum total IgE level.