BACKGROUND: A systematic review was conducted of the effects of parental smoking on immunoglobulin (IgE) levels, skin prick positivity, and allergic rhinitis or eczema in children. Asthma was excluded in order to distinguish more clearly the effect of passive smoke exposure on allergic sensitisation. METHODS: Thirty six 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 was completed in April 1997 and identified nine studies of IgE in neonates, eight of IgE in older children, 12 which included skin prick tests, and 10 describing symptoms of allergic disease other than asthma or wheezing. A quantitative meta-analysis was possible only for the studies reporting skin prick tests. RESULTS: Several large studies failed to confirm early reports of a substantial or statistically significant association of maternal smoking with concentrations of total serum IgE in neonates or in older children. No consistent association emerged between parental smoking and allergic rhinitis or eczema. Few of these studies adjusted for potential confounding variables. The quantity and quality of evidence was greatest for skin prick tests, and studies of parental smoking during pregnancy or infancy were broadly consistent in showing no adverse effect on prick positivity (pooled odds ratio 0.87, 95% confidence interval 0.62 to 1.24). There was much greater and statistically significant (p = 0.002) heterogeneity of odds ratios relating current parental smoking to skin prick positivity. CONCLUSIONS: Parental smoking, either before or immediately after birth, is unlikely to increase the risk of allergic sensitisation in children.
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