Background Although pollens are major allergens associated with allergic rhinoconjunctivitis and asthma, there is little information about the relative prevalence of these conditions in populations with different pollen exposures.
Objective The purpose of this study was to investigate the relationship between pollen exposure and allergic symptoms among children in different countries.
Methods An ecological analysis was conducted to see whether pollen exposure (pollen counts, and duration and severity of pollen seasons) is associated with symptoms of allergic rhinoconjunctivitis, asthma and atopic eczema in 28 centres within 11 countries (nine being in Europe). Data on the prevalence of symptoms in 13–14-year olds were based on the responses to the written questionnaires from the International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood (ISAAC). The analysis was adjusted for gross national product and mean annual relative humidity.
Results There was little relationship between pollen exposure and symptom prevalence, except for a significant inverse association between grass pollen counts and lifetime prevalence of the symptoms of allergic rhinitis (P=0.03). Almost all the regression coefficients were negative. The associations were even weaker and all non-significant when the analyses were conducted within countries, using a random intercept fixed slope model, but there was still no evidence of a positive association between pollen exposure and symptoms.
Conclusion There is a weak but consistent tendency for the prevalence of allergic symptoms to be inversely associated with pollen exposure. This finding accords with evidence from several countries, suggesting that the prevalence of hayfever and asthma tends to be lower in rural than in urban areas, and lowest among people living on farms. Exposure to allergenic pollen in early life does not appear to increase the risk of acquiring symptoms of respiratory allergy, and may even give some protection against them.