Women who have suffered domestic abuse may have a higher risk of developing atopic diseases such as asthma, allergic rhinoconjunctivitis and atopic eczema, according to a new study led by researchers at the University of Birmingham.

The health impacts of domestic abuse analysed in nearly 14,000 women who had experienced a history of domestic violence and abuse (DVA) showed they had a 52% increased risk of atopic disease compared to those who had not been abused.

The research is published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice, and researchers hope the findings will inform public health strategies for assessing atopic diseases.

The World Health Organization (WHO) consider abuse and violence against women a global public health issue. DVA affects up to one in three women globally and one in four women in their lifetime in the United Kingdom.

Previous smaller studies have shown that exposure to DVA can be linked to health problems. In particular, it is associated with a stronger than normal reaction to allergens caused by an overactive immune system. This is thought to be caused by increased stress on the body, which results in a higher allostatic load.

This study is the first large-scale attempt to explore the relationship between DVA and the development of multiple atopic diseases using UK data.

Analysing over 62,000 primary care patient records, the study was a retrospective open cohort study, looking at adult women aged 18 and older. A total of 13,852 women were identified as being exposed to domestic violence and were analysed against 49,036 similar women without a reported exposure to DVA.

The researchers found that significantly more women with atopic disease had a history of being exposed to domestic abuse and violence compared to those who had experienced no violence or abuse. For women exposed to domestic abuse, the incidence of atopic diseases was 20 per 1,000 compared to 13 per 1,000 in the unexposed group of women.

The researchers acknowledge that the women in the exposed group were more likely to be current smokers than those not exposed to domestic abuse. Future work aims to address this limitation.

Dr Joht Singh Chandan from the University of Birmingham said: ‘After adjusting for possible cofounders, our results show women with a recorded exposure to domestic violence and abuse had a 52% increased risk of developing atopic diseases.’

He added: ‘Domestic violence and abuse is a global issue that disproportionately affects women.

‘We set out to deepen our understanding of the health impacts of domestic violence, so evidence-based public health policies can be further developed to address not only domestic violence but secondary effects like the development of atopic diseases.’

This article first appeared on our sister title Nursing in Practice.