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The Allergy Epidemic

A mere generation ago, asthma was one of those rare chronic illnesses that most parents just whispered about, solid foods were given in the first weeks of life, and eczema was a sign of aging skin. Now it seems every home with a baby has a nebulizer in the bathroom cabinet, solids are often delayed until 6 months of age, and infant eczema is as common as cradle cap.

Allergies are one of the fastest growing chronic diseases in childhood. Consider this: In recent decades, rates of eczema in the United States have tripled and those of asthma have nearly doubled. One in 20 children under age 3 now has a food allergy.

What's behind these sky-rocketing statistics? Strangely enough, we may be too darn clean: Some experts link the increase to improved hygiene, immunizations, and antibiotics that have dramatically reduced the number of diseases that threaten our bodies. As a result, the immune system—which normally protects the body—overreacts to harmless substances, such as pollen, mold, pet dander, or food. When exposed to these "allergens," the body responds with symptoms like swelling, hives, and itching.

The uptick in allergy rates may also be due to lifestyle changes: As Americans spend more time indoors, their exposure to allergens such as pets and dust mites increases. A greater awareness and improved diagnosis may play a role as well.

Having allergies early in life increases a child's risk for developing other related conditions, like hay fever, later on. What's more, tending to an allergic infant can give you a case of the crankies, too—nursing moms may be forced to forego favorite foods, for instance, and slathering skin softeners on squirmy babies just adds another level of complication to an already exhausting childcare routine.

While babies with a family history are at greatest risk, (a child has a 25 percent chance of having allergies if one parent is affected, and a 60 to 70 percent chance if both parents are), increasing numbers of babies without a family history are developing allergies. The good news is that there are ways to minimize your child's risk, spot the earliest signs, and keep symptoms under control, if your baby turns out to be one of the countless affected.

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