It has long been known that allergies and asthma tend to run in families. Consequently, many prevention efforts have been targeted to the children of allergic or asthmatic parents. Although allergies and asthma cannot be uniformly prevented, recent information suggests that there are steps a family with a history of allergic disease can take to delay or reduce the occurrence of allergies in their infants.
Preventing Food Allergies
Food allergies in children can cause severe allergic reactions, ranging from rashes to complete systemic failure (called anaphylaxis.) The major strategy for preventing food allergies (baby allergies) is to delay exposure to potentially allergenic foods and liquids, since newborn infants may be more susceptible to food sensitization than older infants. Mothers should breast feed their infants for at least four to six months if possible, since breast milk is much less likely to produce an allergic reaction and can strengthen the child’s immune system. For infants not being breast fed or supplemented with breast milk, protein hydrolysate formulas such as Alimentum or Nutramigen should be used rather than milk – or soy-based formulas. These partially pre-digested protein formulas have been shown to be less likely to trigger allergy.
Infants should not be fed solid foods until they are six months old. When infants are six to twelve months old, vegetables, rice, meat and fruit can be introduced to their diets. Each food should be introduced one at a time so parents or caregivers can identify elimination diet that can cause allergy symptoms. After the child is one year old, milk, wheat, corn, citrus and soy may be added. Finally, at two years of age, eggs and fish may added to the child’s diet, and peanuts may be introduced after age three. This dietary regimen has been shown to reduce or delay food allergies and the allergic skin disease atopic dermatitis or eczema in infants of allergic parents.
Preventing Environmental Allergies
Studies in animals suggest that there is an increased risk of becoming allergic to certain substances in the air when an animal is exposed to them shortly after birth. Similarly in children, the development of allergies to house dust mites, the microscopic creatures related to spiders that are found in large quantities inside the home, has been linked to the amount of early exposure to house dust mites. This suggests that taking steps to aggressively control dust mites in the children’s homes may reduce the
occurrence of dust mite allergy in children.
These steps include using zippered, plastic covers on pillows and mattresses and washing bedding in hot water every seven to ten days. Indoor relative humidity should be kept below 50 percent to inhibit dust mite population growth. Use of humidifiers or vaporizers, which increase humidity, should be avoided. Optimally, carpets, upholstered furniture or objects that collect dust should be removed from the infant’s bedroom.
Development of allergies to animals in children is associated with the presence of furry animals in the children’s homes at birth. Animal allergies are triggered by proteins found in the saliva, urine and dander, the dried skin flakes of certain animals with hair including dogs, cats, rabbits and other rodents. For this reason, during their early years of life, infants from allergic families should not be exposed to these indoor pets in an attempt to prevent allergies to animals.
Preventing Allergic Asthma
Since allergies may trigger asthma, it is not surprising that infants exposed to fewer dust mites during infancy are less likely to develop allergic asthma. Thus, aggressive mite control using the steps listed above should reduce the occurrence of asthma as well as upper respiratory allergy. Likewise, as exposure to pets during infancy may increase the risk of developing asthma, children should not be exposed to pets with fur during their first few years.
Maternal smoking during pregnancy is associated with increased wheezing during infancy in the children of smokers. Exposing children to secondhand smoke in the home has also been shown to increase asthma and other chronic respiratory illnesses during childhood. Therefore, it is extremely important that infants not be exposed to second-hand smoke prenatally or during childhood.
Finally, the respiratory infections are a common trigger of asthma and may perhaps even initiate it. Breast feeding for the recommended time period of at least six months strengthens children’s immune systems, which can be helpful in avoiding respiratory infections and consequently, asthma. Also, it is best to avoid placing very young children in group day care, as this is more likely to increase their exposure to respiratory infections and consequently, trigger asthma.
Although it is not possible to completely prevent allergies and asthma in young children with the knowledge we currently have, the genetic and cellular engineering promises hope for such absolute prevention in the future. In the meantime, parents with allergies or asthma can make the recommended environmental changes and use the preventative strategies discussed to help reduce or delay the occurrence of allergies and asthma in their children.