There is growing interest in the 'farm effect' on the spectrum of allergy. Evidence concerning the farm effect on asthma, eczema, and allergic rhinitis has been systematically synthesized, but without a specific focus on objective markers of sensitization. This focus is important, as farm exposures may be related to allergy but not to non-allergic phenotypes of disease. We aimed to systematically review and meta-analyse literature that has investigated associations between farm exposure at any age and objective measures of atopy, that is serum IgE or skin prick tests results. Using predefined inclusion and exclusion criteria, we identified 29 articles for review. IgE levels were measured in either childhood or adulthood by eighteen studies, while skin prick testing was performed in sixteen studies. Newcastle-Ottawa Scale quality assessments indicated that the majority of these studies demonstrated a representative sample of selected participants. Due to significant heterogeneity in study measures and methodology between studies, only few were meta-analysed. This meta-analysis showed a significant protective effect of farm exposure before 1 year of life on allergic sensitization (OR = 0.60 [0.52-0.70]). Farm exposure during childhood was also associated with a reduced risk of sensitization to cat or timothy (OR = 0.60 [0.51-0.70]; OR=0.46 [0.41-0.51]). Studies investigating the effect of farm exposure in adult life could not be meta-analysed, and their results were inconsistent. Insufficient studies investigated food sensitization as an outcome to allow synthesis. The majority of studies included in this review investigated childhood farm exposure, finding evidence to support a protective childhood 'farm effect' against subsequent atopy. There is inconsistent evidence on the association between farm exposure in adulthood and allergic sensitization. Further studies are needed to tease out the exact exposures and timing associated with farming environments that protect against allergic disease.
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.