Objective. To examine the prevalence of viral infection, passive smoke exposure, and IgE antibody to inhaled allergens in infants and children treated for acute wheezing.

Design. Case-control study of actively wheezing children who were compared with children without respiratory tract symptoms.

Setting. University of Virginia Pediatric Emergency Room.

Patients. Convenience sample of 99 wheezing patients (2 months to 16 years of age) and 57 control patients (6 months to 16 years of age).

Measurements and results. Serum IgE antibody to inhalant allergens, measured by radioallergosorbent test (RAST), was uncommon in wheezing and control patients under age 2. After 2 years of age, the percentage of RAST-positive patients increased markedly and was significantly higher in wheezing patients than controls after age 4 (72%, n = 54, and 30%, n = 40, respectively, P < .001). Total IgE levels and nasal eosinophilia were strongly correlated with a positive RAST after age 2. Viral pathogens, predominantly respiratory syncytial virus, were identified in nasal washes from 70% (n = 20) of wheezing patients younger than 2 years of age compared with 20% of controls (n = 10), P < .05. After age 2, viruses, particularly rhinovirus, were isolated in washes from 31% (n = 70) of wheezing patients, 64% of whom were also RAST-positive. Levels of cotinine, a nicotine metabolite, were elevated (≥10 ng/mL) in saliva from a large percentage of smoke-exposed, wheezing patients under 2 (74%, n = 19) compared with those over 2 (14%, n = 51), P < .001. Odds ratios for wheezing were significant for virus (8.2, confidence interval [CI] = 1.3 to 5.0), and cotinine (4.7, CI = 1.0 to 21.3) in children under 2, and IgE antibody by RAST (4.5, CI = 2.0 to 10.2), virus (3.7, CI = 1.3 to 10.6), and the combination of IgE antibody and virus (10.8, CI = 1.9 to 59.0) were significant risk factors after age 2.

Conclusion. Wheezing children younger than 2 years of age had a high rate of viral infection and a low rate of IgE antibody to inhalant allergens. When these children were exposed to passive smoke, salivary cotinine levels were elevated suggesting heavy exposure. After 2 years of age, sensitization to inhaled allergens became increasingly important and viruses remained a significant risk factor for wheezing. These data support recommendations to reduce tobacco smoke exposure at home, especially for young patients, and to consider sensitization to inhaled allergens and allergen avoidance in wheezing children at an early age, particularly after age 2 years.

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