BACKGROUND The timing and mechanism of the inverse association between increasing sibling number and atopic disease are not yet understood. A study was undertaken to examine how family size at birth predicts early respiratory illness, to report the association between infant respiratory illness and childhood atopic disease, and to determine whether the protective effect of large family size operates during infancy or later childhood.
METHODS A prospective follow up study was carried out on 863 children (78%) of 1111 participants in the Tasmanian Infant Health Survey performed in 1988. In 1988 household size and history of respiratory illness were obtained by parental interview at home (median age 35 days) and later by telephone (median age 85 days). In 1995 asthma, hay fever, and household size were assessed by parental questionnaire in a large cross sectional survey.
RESULTS In 1988 increasing resident number (per resident) (adjusted odds ratio (AOR) 1.17 (95% CI 1.05 to 1.31)) and resident density (AOR 1.77 (95% CI 1.07 to 2.94)) were related to parental report of an upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) by one month of age. Children with a reported URTI by home interview were more likely to have subsequent asthma (adjusted relative risk (ARR) 1.27 (95% CI 1.05 to 1.53)). The association between lower respiratory tract infection (LRTI) at telephone interview (relative risk (RR) 1.34 (95% CI 1.02 to 1.75) and asthma was reduced after adjustment for family history of asthma (ARR 1.27 (95% CI 0.98 to 1.66)). Antibiotic use by home interview was not associated with subsequent asthma or hay fever. Indicators of family size in 1988 were associated with hay fever but not asthma but, in contrast, resident number in 1995 was inversely associated with asthma (AOR 0.82 (95% CI 0.72 to 0.92) per resident) and hay fever (AOR 0.82 (95% CI 0.71 to 0.96) per resident). Children with no siblings were at risk for current asthma, particularly if symptoms began after the age of four (RR 2.81 (95% CI 1.36 to 5.84)).
CONCLUSIONS The apparent protective effect of large household size and asthma could not be explained by an increase in reported early respiratory illness. The first year of life may not be the most critical time for the protective effect of large household size to be mediated in relation to asthma, but this effect occurred by the seventh year of life.
- family size
- respiratory infection
- hay fever
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