PURPOSE OF REVIEW: With escalating rates of allergic disease, it is vital to explore novel causal pathways. This review examines the evidence for a potential role of changing dietary intake of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in the development, treatment and prevention of allergic diseases.

RECENT FINDINGS: Although it is difficult to determine the contribution of altered (decreased) dietary intake of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids to the recent rise in the incidence of allergic disease, there is growing evidence that these nutrients have antiinflammatory properties and may modulate immune responses. These fatty acids have few side effects, and may be of some benefit in established allergic diseases (such as asthma and atopic dermatitis), although these effects are not strong. Because of this limited efficacy in established disease, the focus has shifted to the potential benefits of these immune modulators in earlier life for disease prevention.

Two recent preliminary reports in infants suggest that dietary omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplements in pregnancy or in the early postnatal period could have immunomodulatory properties and associated clinical effects, although more studies are now needed.

Novel synthetic polyunsaturated fatty acids with more potent and selective antiinflammatory effects may also provide safe therapeutic and preventive strategies in the future.

SUMMARY: Dietary factors are important but still under-explored candidates in the search for environmental strategies to reduce the enormous impact of allergic diseases in modernized societies. There is an ongoing need for further research into the role of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in allergic disease, particularly in early life before atopy is established.