Author: Sara Rider
For the thousands of children and adults who struggle with various types of allergies, part of the question is always, “Why me?” Why is my child allergic to chocolate or eggs or shellfish? Why do my siblings suffer from cedar fever or why am I allergic to cats and dogs?
Trying to understand why one person is allergic and another isn’t can be complicated, in part because the body’s allergic responses are complicated. One way to look at allergies is that when people are allergic, their bodies have responded to some relatively harmless substance – whether it’s cat hair or cedar pollen – as though it was not a harmless substance, but a dangerous one. The body’s attempt to combat this “dangerous substance” results in the reactions we think of as allergies.
But is there anything we can to do make our children less likely to be allergic? Recent research offers some tantalizing prospects, particularly for infants.
On the rise
One trend that’s driving an increased interest in trying to find ways to make children less prone to allergies is what seems to be an increase in the percent of people who are allergic.
“Experts are baffled as to why allergies have become more prevalent, citing changes in our environment and diet as possible explanations,” concedes Dr. Tom Smith, a board-certified pediatrician and allergist with The Austin Diagnostic Clinic. “That allergens are especially troubling in developed countries such as Australia, Britain and the U.S. means environment and lifestyle may be factors.”
Too much clean, too little exposure
One possible reason for this increased prevalence of allergies is something called the “hygiene hypothesis.” A report in the April 2012 “Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology” about Amish children in Indiana theorized that children are developing allergies because they are “too clean,” and that allergies are on the rise because children’s immune systems never learn how to deal with natural substances like dust mites, cat dander and grass pollen. According to the article, children who live on farms have a lower rate of allergies.
This “hygiene hypothesis” may reflect how the body protects itself against infection. Basically, the body has two types of immunity: protective immunity, which protects us against things like germs; and allergic immunity, which is a response to things like dust, pollen, foods and other substances. A recent theory suggests that if the body is busy fighting off germs and developing protective immunity, it is less likely to develop allergic immunity.
“The notion is that if children are exposed to germs early on, they increase their protective immunity,” explains Dr. Smith. “The protective immune response interferes with the development of allergy immunity.”
If this theory is true, then playing outside and being exposed to germs in other ways may actually make a child less likely to develop allergies.
The pet debate
While devoted cat and dog lovers would always maintain that every family needs at least one pet, for years there has been a lot of debate about whether pets can be unhealthy for children and cause allergic reactions.
“The relationship between exposure to animals early in life and the development of allergies and asthma is somewhat confusing,” says Dr. Smith.
“Previous evidence suggested that children exposed to animals early in life were more likely to develop allergies and asthma.” New research may be contradicting this belief.
“There is some evidence that infants are less likely to develop allergies to common airborne allergens if two or more cats or dogs are in the house during the infant’s first year of life.”
According to Dr. Smith, one possibility is that children with pets are more likely to be exposed to something called endotoxins.
Endotoxins are part of bacteria, explains Dr. Smith, and they “can cause illness when people are exposed to them in high amounts. In homes with pets, endotoxins are found on floors and probably in other places that pets stay. Bacteria with endotoxins are in pet saliva and on pet fur.” If this new research is confirmed, then a multi-pet household may help an infant to avoid allergies later in life.
You are what you eat
So, besides playing in the dirt and having multiple family pets, are there other things parents can do to decrease the likelihood of their children developing allergies? Contrary to some beliefs, Dr. Smith says that the notion of avoiding certain foods while pregnant or breastfeeding will not result in your child being less allergic to those foods.
“Restricting a mother’s diet during pregnancy or while breastfeeding has not been shown to help prevent the development of allergies,” states Dr. Smith, “but breastfeeding exclusively for four to six months and continuing breastfeeding while introducing new foods can help.”
Dr. Smith also recommends avoiding solid foods until the age of four to six months. “After that, introduce a new food every two to three days and introduce one new food at a time so that any reactions can be readily identified.”
“There is no evidence that delaying the introduction of foods like eggs, milk, peanuts or seafood beyond the first four to six months of life reduces the risk of food allergy. Some studies suggest that delayed introduction of foods after six months may even lead to increased risk of food allergy, although we’ll need more research to confirm this.”
A world without allergies
Researchers are learning more about allergies, the body’s allergic response and how infants and children develop allergies in the first place. While there is no current cure or preventive measure that is 100 percent effective, by taking some simple steps early on, parents may be able to help reduce the chances that their children develop irritating – and sometimes dangerous – allergies.
Sara Rider is a native Austinite who has worked with physicians and hospitals throughout Texas. She frequently writes freelance articles on health topics for newspapers and magazines.