BACKGROUND: A systematic quantitative review was conducted of evidence relating parental smoking to acute lower respiratory illness in the first three years of life. METHODS: Fifty relevant publications were identified after consideration of 692 articles selected by electronic search of the Embase and Medline databases using keywords relevant to passive smoking in children. The search, completed in April 1997, identified 24 studies ascertaining illnesses in a community setting, including five surveys of schoolchildren with retrospective ascertainment of early chest illness, and 17 studies of admissions to hospital for lower respiratory illness in early life. Thirty eight studies were included in a quantitative overview using random effects modelling to derive pooled odds ratios. RESULTS: The results of community and hospital studies are broadly consistent, with only one publication reporting a reduced risk among children of smokers. The pooled odds ratios were 1.57 (95% CI 1.42 to 1.74) for smoking by either parent and 1.72 (95% CI 1.55 to 1.91) for maternal smoking. There is a significantly increased risk of early chest illness associated with smoking by other household members in families where the mother does not smoke (1.29, 95% CI 1.16 to 1.44). The associations with parental smoking are robust to adjustment for confounding factors, and show evidence of a dose-response relationship in most studies in which this has been investigated. CONCLUSIONS: The relationship between parental smoking and acute lower respiratory illness in infancy is very likely to be causal. Although it is impossible to distinguish the independent contributions of prenatal and postnatal maternal smoking, the increased risk associated with smoking by other household members suggests that exposure to environmental tobacco smoke after birth is a cause of acute chest illness in young children.
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