Preventing allergies: It’s more complex than you think

Before you stop cleaning or get a cat, learn why preventing allergies isn't so black and white.

“Roaches may protect baby from allergies, asthma” was one of the many local and national news headlines regarding a “new” study released earlier this month. It claimed that exposure by children to certain common  bacteria, and allergens from cockroaches, mice, and cats might provide a protective effect against asthma and allergies similar to that which children raised on farms appear to possess for barn animals.

Did these findings seem too good to be true? They definitely needed to be put in context. In today’s consumer driven world, the 24 hours news cycle and 140 character storyline has created an insatiable demand for content. Unfortunately, this often results in headlines that lack clarity or context, and often misrepresent the bottom line. This is especially true for stories involving the latest medical breakthroughs or research. Rarely are things exactly as they seem.

Don’t get me wrong — I support raising awareness of asthma and allergy research through popular media, but when facts get lost in translation or complex considerations typically found in medical research are oversimplified, such stories may do more harm than good. So let’s pause a moment and delve more into this research.

It’s rare that any one study or piece of research can unlock the mystery surrounding why children develop allergies or asthma or identify a silver bullet to prevent them. To the contrary, the “hygiene hypothesis” has been the subject of much debate within the medical community for more than two decades. As with any controversial subject, there is a fairly large (and growing) body of research that attempts to understand and explain the phenomenon.

But the reality is that we don’t yet know what effect exposure to different substances has on the development of allergies and asthma. Every day I speak with families who hope that I have the answer for why their child has asthma and how we can make it go away. But we all must avoid the temptation to find the easy answer.

What we do know is that the immune system is very complex. By design, it serves as a gatekeeper for the body and over time fine tunes the ability of our bodies to react and respond to exposures from all sorts of things in our environment. While it is possible to develop a tolerance to certain substances, even that ability varies person-by-person based on genetics and other factors. Perhaps in the future, we will be able to tell you exactly what to expose yourself to prevent you from developing allergies, but we are still far from being able to make such recommendations.

So when it comes to kids and allergies, its best to stick to the basics:

  • monitor your child for any reactions to food or other environmental exposures
  • avoid exposure to anything that has been known to cause reactions in your child
  • talk to your pediatrician about anything that seems out of the ordinary or causes concern

And most importantly, provided that you and your children are not already allergic to cats, get a cat because you want a pet and not because you heard it might prevent your child from developing asthma. 


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