There is a common progression known as the allergic march from atopic dermatitis to allergic asthma. Cetirizine has several antiallergic properties that suggest a potential effect on the development of airway inflammation and asthma in infants with atopic dermatitis.
Methods: Over a two year period, 817 infants aged one to two years who suffered from atopic dermatitis and with a history of atopic disease in a parent or sibling were included in the ETAC (Early Treatment of the Atopic Child) trial, a multi-country, double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled trial. The infants were treated for 18 months with either cetirizine (0.25mg/ kg b.i.d.) or placebo. The number of infants who developed asthma was compared between the two groups. Clinical and biological assessments including analysis of total and specific IgE antibodies were performed.
Results: In the placebo group, the relative risk (RR) for developing asthma was elevated in patients with a raised level of total IgE (> or = 30 kU/l) or specific IgE (> or = 0.35 kUA/l) for grass pollen, house dust mite or cat dander (RR between 1.4 and 1.7). Compared to placebo, cetirizine significantly reduced the incidence of asthma for patients sensitised to grass pollen (RR = 0.5) or to house dust mite (RR = 0.6). However, in the population that included all infants with normal and elevated total or specific IgE (intention-to-treat - ITT), there was no difference between the numbers of infants developing asthma while receiving cetirizine or placebo. The adverse events profile was similar in the two treatment groups.
Discussion: Raised total IgE level and raised specific IgE levels to grass pollen, house dust mite or cat dander were predictive of subsequent asthma. Cetirizine halved the number of patients developing asthma in the subgroups sensitised to grass pollen or house dust mite (i.e. 20% of the study population). In view of the proven safety of the drug, we propose this treatment as a primary pharmacological intervention strategy to prevent the development of asthma in specifically sensitised infants with atopic dermatitis.