Does fish oil during pregnancy help prevent asthma in kids?

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The evidence on fish oil has been mixed, but this study affirms its benefits—in certain women.


Fish oil supplementation taken by women in the third trimester of pregnancy can reduce the risk of persistent wheeze, asthma, and infections of the lower respiratory tract in their children.1


B: Based on 2 double-blinded randomized controlled trials (RCTs).

Bisgaard H, Stokholm J, Chawes BL, et al. Fish oil-derived fatty acids in pregnancy and wheeze and asthma in offspring. N Engl J Med. 2016;375:2530-2539.1




A 24-year-old G2P1 at 24 weeks’ gestation presents to your clinic for a routine prenatal visit. Her older daughter has asthma and she is inquiring as to whether there is anything she can do to lower the risk of her second child developing asthma in the future. What do you recommend?

Asthma is the most common chronic disease in children in resource-rich countries such as the United States.2 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 8.4% of children were diagnosed with asthma in 2015.3

Omega-3 fatty acids, found naturally in fish oil, are thought to confer anti-inflammatory properties that offer protection against asthma. Clinical trials have shown that fish oil supplementation in pregnancy results in higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, along with anti-inflammatory changes, in offspring.4 Previous epidemiologic studies have also found that consumption of omega-3 fatty acids decreased the risk of atopy and asthma in offspring.5,6

A Cochrane review published in 2015, however, concluded that omega-3 supplementation during pregnancy had no benefit on wheeze or asthma in offspring.7 Five RCTs were included in the analysis. The largest trial by Palmer et al, which included 706 women, showed no benefit for omega-3 supplementation.8 The second largest by Olsen et al, which included 533 women, did show a benefit (hazard ratio [HR]=0.37; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.15-0.92; number needed to treat [NNT]=19.6).9

These results, however, were limited by heterogeneity in the amount of fish oil supplemented and duration of follow-up. For example, the children in the Palmer study were followed only until 3 years of age, which is around the time that asthma can be formally diagnosed, potentially leading to under-reporting.8 In addition, the diagnosis of asthma was based on parent report of 3 episodes of wheezing, use of daily asthma medication, or use of a national registry—all of which can underestimate the incidence of asthma. The reported rate of childhood asthma with IgE-sensitization (they did not report the rate without sensitization) was 1.8% in both arms, which is much lower than the CDC’s rate of 8.4%, suggesting underdiagnosis.3,8 Due to these biases and other potential confounders, no firm conclusions can be drawn from the Cochrane review.


Maternal fish oil supplementation reduces incidence of asthma in children

This single-center, double-blinded RCT of 736 pregnant women evaluated the effect of 2.4 g/d of n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (eicosapentaenoic acid [EPA] and docosahexaenoic acid [DHA]) or placebo (olive oil), starting at an estimated gestational age of 24 to 26 weeks, on wheeze or asthma incidence in their offspring.1

Eligible women were between 22 and 26 weeks’ pregnant at the time of recruitment. Exclusion criteria included supplementation of 600 IU/d or more of vitamin D, or having any endocrine, cardiac, or renal disorders. The investigators randomized the women in a 1:1 ratio to either fish oil or placebo. Maternal EPA and DHA blood levels were tested at the time of randomization and one week after birth.

The primary outcome was persistent wheeze or asthma (after 3 years of age, the diagnosis of persistent wheeze was termed asthma) based on daily diary recordings of 5 episodes of troublesome lung symptoms within the last 6 months (each lasting for at least 3 consecutive days), rescue use of inhaled beta2-agonists, and/or relapse after a 3-month course of inhaled glucocorticoids. Secondary outcomes included lower respiratory tract infections, asthma exacerbations, eczema, and allergic sensitization.

In total, 695 offspring were included in the study with 95.5% follow-up at 3 years and 93.1% follow-up at 5 years. The children had scheduled pediatric visits at 1 week; 1, 3, 6, 12, 18, 24, 30, and 36 months; and at 4 and 5 years, and acute visits for any pulmonary, allergic, or dermatologic symptoms that arose.

Results. The investigators found that the children of the mothers who received the fish oil had a lower risk of persistent wheeze or asthma at ages 3 to 5 years compared to those who received placebo (16.9% vs 23.7%; HR=0.69; 95% CI, 0.49-0.97; P=.035; NNT=14.7). But the effect of the fish oil supplementation was significant only in the children of the mothers with baseline EPA and DHA levels in the lowest third (17.5% vs 34.1%; HR=0.46; 95% CI, 0.25-0.83; P=.011; NNT=5.6). Similarly, in mothers who consumed the least EPA and DHA before the start of the study, fish oil supplementation had a greater benefit in terms of decreased wheeze and asthma (18.5% vs 32.4%; HR=0.55; 95% CI, 0.30-0.98; P=.043; NNT=7.2).

As for the secondary outcomes, only a reduction in lower respiratory tract infections was associated with the fish oil supplementation vs the control (38.8% vs 45.5%; HR=0.77; 95% CI, 0.61-0.99; P=.041; NNT=14.9). There was no reduction in asthma exacerbations, eczema, or risk of sensitization in the fish oil group.


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