BACKGROUND: Preschool wheeze is an important problem worldwide. No comparative population-based studies covering different countries have previously been undertaken.
OBJECTIVE: To assess the prevalence of early childhood wheeze across Europe and evaluate risk factors focusing on food allergy, breast feeding and smoke exposure.
METHODS: Infants from nine countries were recruited into the EuroPrevall birth cohort. At 12 and 24 months, data on wheeze, allergic signs/symptoms, feeding, smoke exposure, infections and day care attendance were collected using questionnaires. Poisson regression was used to assess risk factors for wheeze.
RESULTS: 12 049 infants were recruited. Data from the second year of life were available in 8805 (73.1%). The prevalence of wheeze in the second year of life ranged from <2% in Lodz (Poland) and Vilnius (Lithuania) to 13.1% (95% CI 10.7% to 15.5%) in Southampton (UK) and 17.2% (95% CI 15.0% 19.5%) in Reykjavik (Iceland). In multivariable analysis, frequent lower respiratory tract infections in the first and second years of life (incidence rate ratio (IRR) 1.9 (95% CI 1.3 to 2.6) and 2.5 (95% CI 1.9 to3.4), respectively), postnatal maternal smoking (IRR 1.6, 95% CI 1.1 to 2.4), day care attendance (IRR 1.6, 95% CI 1.1 to 2.5) and male gender (IRR 1.3, 95% CI 1.0 to 1.7) were associated with wheeze. The strength of their association with wheeze differed between countries. Food allergy and breast feeding were not independently associated with wheeze.
CONCLUSION: The prevalence of early childhood wheeze varied considerably across Europe. Lower respiratory tract infections, day care attendance, postnatal smoke exposure and male gender are important risk factors. Further research is needed to identify additional modifiable risk factors that may differ between countries.