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Incidence and prognosis of asthma and wheezing illness from early childhood to age 33 in a national British cohort

BMJ 1996; 312 doi: (Published 11 May 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;312:1195
  1. David P Strachan, reader in epidemiologya,
  2. Barbara K Butland, lecturer in medical statisticsa,
  3. H Ross Anderson, professor of epidemiology and public healtha
  1. a Department of Public Health Sciences, St George's Hospital Medical School, London SW17 0RE
  1. Correspondence to: Dr Strachan.
  • Accepted 16 February 1996


Objective: To describe the incidence and prognosis of wheezing illness from birth to age 33 and the relation of incidence to perinatal, medical, social, environmental, and lifestyle factors.

Design: Prospective longitudinal study.

Setting: England, Scotland, and Wales.

Subjects: 18 559 people born on 3-9 March 1958. 5801 (31%) contributed information at ages 7, 11, 16, 23, and 33 years. Attrition bias was evaluated using information on 14 571 (79%) subjects.

Main outcome measure: History of asthma, wheezy bronchitis, or wheezing obtained from interview with subjects' parents at ages 7, 11, and 16 and reported at interview by subjects at ages 23 and 33.

Results: The cumulative incidence of wheezing illness was 18% by age 7, 24% by age 16, and 43% by age 33. Incidence during childhood was strongly and independently associated with pneumonia, hay fever, and eczema. There were weaker independent associations with male sex, third trimester antepartum haemorrhage, whooping cough, recurrent abdominal pain, and migraine. Incidence from age 17 to 33 was associated strongly with active cigarette smoking and a history of hay fever. There were weaker independent associations with female sex, maternal albuminuria during pregnancy, and histories of eczema and migraine. Maternal smoking during pregnancy was weakly and inconsistently related to childhood wheezing but was a stronger and significant independent predictor of incidence after age 16. Among 880 subjects who developed asthma or wheezy bronchitis from birth to age 7, 50% had attacks in the previous year at age 7; 18% at 11, 10% at 16, 10% at 23, and 27% at 33. Relapse at 33 after prolonged remission of childhood wheezing was more common among current smokers and atopic subjects.

Conclusion: Atopy and active cigarette smoking are major influences on the incidence and recurrence of wheezing during adulthood.

Key messages

  • Incidence of wheezing illness at all ages was strongly and consistently related to a history of hay fever or eczema (atopy). Associations with maternal smoking during pregnancy, abdominal pain, and migraine were largely confined to those without atopy

  • Active smoking was a powerful and potentially avoidable risk factor for wheeze starting in adult life among both atopic and non-atopic subjects

  • A quarter of the children with a history of asthma or wheezy bronchitis by age 7 reported wheeze in the past year at age 33

  • Recurrence of wheezing after prolonged remis- sion during late adolescence was strongly associ- ated with atopy and cigarette smoking.


  • Funding The British 1958 cohort was initiated by the National Birthday Trust.

  • Conflict of interest None.

  • Accepted 16 February 1996
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