Between 40 and 45 million Americans - about 15-20 percent of the population - have some type of allergy, most of which surface during infancy or childhood. The allergic march is a progression of symptoms that most often occurs in children. The first part of the march is atopic dermatitis, or scaly, itchy skin. About 75 percent of children who have atopic dermatitis go on to develop allergic rhinitis or hay fever, and about 50 percent of children with hay fever go on to develop asthma.
Food allergies also are increasing in children. Statistics show that food allergies affect 3.5-4 percent of the U. S. population. In the 1980s, it was estimated at about 0.5 percent. The prevalence of peanut allergies in the United States has about doubled since the mid-1990s. There are many theories regarding this increase in the incidence of both environmental and food allergies. Certainly public awareness and improved technology have led to an increase in accurate diagnosis of allergies. But then there are environmental reasons as well. Some feel that modern life is too “clean.” They hypothesize that as babies are exposed to less dirt,
disease, bacteria, and viruses their immune systems aren’t activated correctly. In effect, without something real to fight, their immune system goes crazy, attacking things that aren’t really dangerous, things like dust, peanuts, wheat, and even itself - which can lead to autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes. This theory is called the hygiene hypothesis.
One study in Germany right after the reunification found that children in the former East Germany had fewer allergies than those in the former West Germany. Children in East Germany went into day-care centers at very young ages, where they proceeded to give each other lots of colds. It was theorized that having the diseases protected them against allergies, because their immune systems had something real to fight.
Some physicians believe that there may be some concrete steps parents can take to prevent the development of allergies in children. Although more research is required, it appears that these steps may help decrease the severity and/or likelihood that your child will develop allergies:
1. Breast-feed for at least the first 4-6 months of a child’s life to help prevent allergies.
2. Don’t smoke. There’s universal agreement and numerous studies that being exposed to secondhand smoke increases asthma rates.
3. Don’t be afraid to expose your children to other children. The constant runny nose and colds of the day-care center or school are actually a good substitute for the colds passed between the larger numbers of children that most families used to have. Researchers now say that exposure to the common illnesses of childhood helps fine-tune a child’s immune system. Without such exposure, it sometimes strikes out at the wrong things, causing allergies and autoimmune disorders.
4. Don’t have peanuts or products containing peanuts in the house until your child is at least 1. Children can be sensitized to peanuts simply by having someone else in the house eat them. A British study found that families with peanuts in the house have a higher rate of peanut allergy compared with households
with no peanut exposure. However, the question about whether pregnant women should avoid peanuts is not answered. Some researchers believe that prenatal exposure can trigger sensitivity; others believe that it can protect the child.
5. If you’re going to have dogs and cats, get them before you have children. Research has shown that when there is a dog or a cat in the house when a baby arrives, the child gains some protection against later developing animal allergies. This appears to work with dogs slightly more than cats. Getting a pet even a few months later doesn’t seem to have the same effect.