BACKGROUND--The heterogeneous patterns of symptoms among factory workers exposed to aerosols from contaminated air humidifiers were analysed to assess the association between specific symptoms and the serum IgG antibody response to the humidifier water contaminants, and to test the ability of specific symptoms to predict this antibody response. METHODS--Symptoms from 88 factory workers were surveyed by a doctor administered questionnaire and compared with their serum IgG antibody titres to humidifier water contaminants quantified by enzyme immunoassay. RESULTS--The strength of association between individual symptoms and antibody showed that fever, shivering or chills, influenza-like symptoms, or headache were individually significantly associated with the presence and higher titres of antibody. This was also true for those subjects whose symptoms were most pronounced during the first day of the working week. Within each subject's full symptom profile there were significant associations between the description of chest tightness, breathlessness, and wheeze; between headache and influenza like symptoms; between fever and shivering or chills; and between intermittent onset and general tiredness. Discriminant analysis of the full symptom profiles showed that there was maximum information content in five independent parameters, namely, the descriptions of fever, headache, and chest tightness, the timing of their onset, and the readiness to describe miscellaneous symptoms in addition to those in the questionnaire. On the basis of these criteria 72% of subjects could be classified according to their antibody state. Cluster analysis with these five independent parameters described four symptom clusters: one associated with high median antibody levels, one with low, and two with zero median levels. These were, respectively: (1) fever with headache and chest tightness; (2) either no or few symptoms; (3) chest tightness and headache with intermittent onset; (4) headache and miscellaneous symptoms with intermittent onset. CONCLUSIONS--The association between serum antibody titres and specific symptom patterns may identify different categories of disease which constitute the spectrum known as humidifier related disease, and strengthens the hypothesis that antibody may be involved in the pathogenesis of some components of the disease.
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