Children born four months before the peak of cold and flu season have a greater risk of developing childhood asthma than those born at other times of year, according to new research from Vanderbilt.
In the Tennessee Asthma Bronchiolitis Study, which involved an analysis of the birth and medical records of more than 95,000 children and their mothers, researchers explored the question of whether winter respiratory viral infections during infancy cause asthma. They asked if a relationship exists among winter virus circulation (cold and flu season) during infancy, timing of birth, and the development of childhood asthma.
Their findings indicate that autumn-born babies, who are about 4 months old when the winter virus season peaks, have a nearly 30 percent increased risk of developing asthma compared with births during other times of the year. This risk was similar to or greater than other well-established risk factors for asthma.
The research, conducted by postdoctoral fellow Pingsheng Wu and colleagues, appears in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
“This evidence holds promise for asthma prevention, as it suggests that avoiding these early respiratory infections during infancy may have long-term as well as short-term benefits,” says Dr. Tina Hartert, MD’90, MPH’98, associate professor of medicine, allergy, pulmonary and critical care medicine and director of the Center for Asthma Research at Vanderbilt. “This is the first step; we now have to prove that preventing respiratory infections, such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), the most common virus causing severe respiratory infections during infancy, prevents a common lifelong chronic disease that in most cases begins in childhood.
“RSV always peaks in the winter,” Hartert notes. “Through the course of the study, if the peak of RSV occurred in December, the highest rates of asthma were seen in August-born babies. If the peak was in February, the highest rates of asthma were seen in October-born babies, and that’s exactly what we saw—nearly to the day.”
Researchers propose two possible explanations for the link: one, that there is a genetic susceptibility common to both bronchiolitis and the development of asthma; and two, that an environmental exposure such as a winter viral infection causes asthma.
Avoiding winter viruses is difficult, as is evidenced by the fact that 70 percent of infants are infected with RSV in their first year of life, and 100 percent by age 2.
For families whose infants are at high risk for developing asthma, avoiding infection through administration of a vaccine (if we had one), immunoprophylaxis, or timing of birth in the spring months could be protective. But Hartert says it’s premature to make recommendations until such interventions are tested.