Background: Many young children wheeze during viral respiratory infections, but the pathogenesis of these episodes and their relation to the development of asthma later in life are not well understood.
Methods: In a prospective study, we investigated the factors affecting wheezing before the age of three years and their relation to wheezing at six years of age. Of 1246 newborns in the Tucson, Arizona, area enrolled between May 1980 and October 1984, follow-up data at both three and six years of age was available for 826. For these children, assessments in infancy included measurement of cord-serum IgE levels (measured in 750 children), pulmonary-function testing before any lower respiratory illness had occurred (125), measurement of serum IgE levels at nine months of age (672), and questionnaires completed by the children's parents when the children were one year old (800). Assessments at six years of age included measurement of serum IgE levels (in 460), pulmonary-function testing (526), and skin allergy testing (629).
Results: At the age of six years, 425 children (51.5 percent) had never wheezed, 164 (19.9 percent) had had at least one lower respiratory illness with wheezing during the first three years of life but had no wheezing at six years of age, 124 (15.0 percent) had no wheezing before the age of three years but had wheezing at the age of six years, and 113 (13.7 percent) had wheezing both before three years of age and at six years of age. The children who had wheezing before three years of age but not at the age of six had diminished airway function (length-adjusted maximal expiratory flow at functional residual capacity [Vmax FRC]) both before the age of one year and at the age of six years, were more likely than the other children to have mothers who smoked but not mothers with asthma, and did not have elevated serum IgE levels or skin-test reactivity. Children who started wheezing in early life and continued to wheeze at the age of six were more likely than the children who never wheezed to have mothers with a history of asthma (P < 0.001), to have elevated serum IgE levels (P < 0.01), to have normal lung function in the first year of life, and to have elevated serum IgE levels (P < 0.001) and diminished values for VmaxFRC (P < 0.01) at six years of age.
Conclusions: The majority of infants with wheezing have transient conditions associated with diminished airway function at birth and do not have increased risks of asthma or allergies later in life. In a substantial minority of infants, however, wheezing episodes are probably related to a predisposition to asthma.