Allergies on the rise? | Preventing allergies
Skin allergies | Respiratory allergies | Allergies vs. colds Summary
Allergies are one of the fastest growing chronic diseases in childhood. And it can be an inherited condition: Kids who have one parent with allergies are 25 percent more likely to have it than kids whose parents don't have allergies; those with both a mom and dad who suffers from allergies are up to 70 percent more likely to have it. But there are ways to help prevent allergies, and minimize the risks associated with the condition for your child. (For information on food allergies, see our Food Allergies guide.)
Ironically, it may be the improvements to hygiene and medicine that have contributed to the skyrocketing allergy statistics. Because of vaccinations and antibiotics, there's been a decrease in the number of diseases that threaten us. The result: Our immune system, which normally protects the body, overreacts to harmless substances such as pollen, mold, and pet dander.
Another reason may be lifestyle changes. We spend more time indoors, and as a result are exposed to allergens like dust mites and pet dander. Furthermore, our overreliance on antibacterial cleansers just means our children's immune systems are less exposed to bacteria -- both the good and bad kinds -- and are missing crucial opportunities to learn how to recognize friend from foe.
Besides trying to keep your house as dust-free as possible and not being hypervigilant about wiping down every surface with the latest antibacterial spray, which eradicate both good and bad bacteria, potentially affecting your immune system, there are several things you can do while your child is still a baby to help reduce the risk of allergies:
Breastfeed. Breastfed babies are less likely to have allergies. By nursing, you can pass on your immunities to allergens.
Don't smoke in the house or the car, and don't allow anyone else to, either. If you're pregnant, quit.
Also known as atopic dermatitis, eczema is a chronic skin problem that causes itching and inflammation, and is characterized by flare-ups. Sixty percent of cases occur in the first year of life, and 85 percent begin by age 5. If it occurs in infancy or toddlerhood, eczema is often an early sign of allergies, with 75 percent of kids going on to develop another type of allergy, like hay fever. (Often, the eczema outbreaks wane by the time the child develops a respiratory allergy.)
Symptoms: Eczema starts out as a dry, crusty rash that itches. It can appear on the cheeks, arms, and legs. When the skin is broken from constant scratching, it can get infected and antibiotics will be needed.
Treatment: The goal is to break the itch-scratch cycle. Try:
* Applying moisturizer frequently.
* Using nonsoap cleansers or mild soaps when you bathe your child. If there's a flare-up, two new non-steroid, topical anti-inflammatory medications, Elidel and Protopic, are approved for children 2 and up, and many studies suggest they are safe for babies as young as 3 months.
* Dressing your child in loose-fitting all-cotton pajamas at night, and applying cool, wet washcloths on itchy spots at bedtime to soothe the itch.
* Using laundry products that are free of dyes and perfumes, and washing new clothes before your child wears them.
* Keeping your child's fingernails short and as clean as you can to lessen the chance that she'll break the skin when she scratches.
When skin comes into contact with a specific irritant, it can cause a red, chapped-looking rash. Typical causes include latex or rubber in nipples and pacifiers, nickel in snaps, uncovered metal bars on strollers, laundry detergents, cleansers, and skin-care products. If the rash doesn't diminish with an over-the-counter product like A+D ointment, it's itchy and uncomfortable and perhaps spreading, and it's accompanied by a fever, talk to your doctor.
Allergies can emerge anytime between infancy and adolescence, but you can reduce or delay your child's risk by lessening your child's exposure to common triggers of respiratory allergies. And you can help relieve his symptoms a number of ways.
Dust mites: These microscopic, spider-like creatures hide in and on upholstered furniture, carpets, mattresses, pillows, blankets, and stuffed animals. To keep the dust under control, wipe surfaces with a damp cloth, wet-mop floors, and vacuum at least once a week. If you have a baby, wash the crib sheets weekly for at least 10 minutes in hot water, then dry them at the highest heat setting. You should also wash stuffed animals weekly in hot water, or seal them in a plastic bag and put them in the freezer overnight.
Mold: For kids with asthma, mold can worsen symptoms; in others, it can cause wheezing, coughing, and nasal congestion. To keep mold at bay, use exhaust fans in the bathrooms to remove the moist air and put a portable dehumidifier in your basement if it's damp; repair any water leaks as soon as they happen and dry any visible water immediately; if you smell a musty odor, you've got mold, so get rid of the damaged carpet, rug, or furniture; scrub the mold you see with a bleach-and-water solution or a commercial mold remover.
Pet dander: Cats and dogs are among the most frequent causes of allergies, so if you have a family history of allergies, delay adopting a pet until you find out if your child is allergic, too. If you already have one, it's wise to groom and bathe it frequently and keep it out of your infant's bedroom or play areas. However, there is some evidence that suggests that having two cats or dogs (or one of each) reduces the risk of babies developing allergies later in childhood, so don't be too quick to get rid of your pets.
Pollen: If your child is 4 or older and she sniffles, sneezes, or coughs through the first weeks of spring, she may have hay fever, which is commonly triggered by pollen from trees and grass. If this is the case, try to reduce her exposure by...
* Limiting outdoor play between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., when tree pollen peaks, and spending more time outdoors after a spring shower or on cloudy, still days.
* Changing her clothes and washing her hair after she's been outside playing.
* Closing the windows and doors and turning on the fan setting of your air conditioner, which will act as an air purifier. (Just be sure to clean the air filters every week or two.)
Treating respiratory allergy symptoms:
* Try over-the-counter antihistamines to block the sniffles, or saline nasal sprays or drops. (Avoid decongestant nasal sprays -- long-term use can irritate the inside of the nose.)
* If these aren't enough, ask your pediatrician to prescribe a stronger, non-sedating antihistamine such as Zyrtec or Allegra.
* If your child is over 6, he could be a candidate for allergy shots. Or ask your doctor about new allergy drops, which are safe enough for kids as young as 2.
The symptoms of allergies and colds -- runny nose, congestion, cough -- are so similar it can be hard to tell which is which. Here's how to distinguish between the two:
* If your child is under 3, an allergy is unlikely: He hasn't been around triggers long enough to develop one.
* If symptoms last less than two weeks, it's probably a cold.
* If your child's mucus is thin and clear, it's probably an allergy; thick, yellow mucus is the hallmark of a cold.
* If your child's eyes, nose, and throat itch, it's probably an allergy.
Though allergies are on the rise, there are things you can do to minimize your child's risk of developing them. For children under 1, breastfeeding will protect a baby from respiratory allergies like hay fever. For older kids, trying your best to keep allergens at bay will help minimize their risk or at least reduce their symptoms.