Allergic rhinitis, commonly known as “hay fever” and “seasonal allergies,” has been steadily increasing around the world, putting a damper on people’s quality of life due to symptoms and treatment cost. So, understanding the causes of rhinitis is an important research goal.
Benefits of pets, siblings, and farms
To look at this question, researchers questioned 8,486 adults, aged 20 to 40, from 13 countries, about their childhoods and their current respiratory health. After nine years, the study participants completed these questionnaires again and also were asked whether and when they developed nasal allergies or hay fever.
After taking into account other things that may affect allergies, including family history of allergies and whether their parents smoked, the researchers identified several childhood factors linked with later developing allergies:
Contact with children, either siblings or in daycare, decreased the risk of developing allergies.
The more siblings a person had, the lower his or her likelihood of developing rhinitis.
Sharing a bedroom with an older sibling was protective against developing allergies.
Having pets in the home or living on a farm as a child significantly decreased the likelihood of developing allergies.
Having a mother who smoked while they were in utero and when they were a child increased allergy risk.
Women had fewer allergies than men as kids, but more allergies as adults.
The balance between clean and not-so-clean
Some of these results may be surprising because they suggest that childhood exposure to more “dirt and germs” can keep allergies at bay. On the other hand, other studies suggest that for children growing up in urban environments, being exposed to urban pests such as cockroaches may increase allergy and asthma risk. Read on for tips on finding the right “balance of clean” to keep your family healthy.
Butt out. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about ways to quit. Using aids such as certain prescription medications, the nicotine patch or gum, and support groups significantly increases the likelihood of success, and your child’s health is a great motivator to quit.
Ponder a pet. If your child has been begging for a pet, don’t let the “dirt and germ factor” dissuade you. Of course, only consider adding a pet to your family if you know you can care for it properly, and pick one that fits your lifestyle. For example, cats tend to be lower maintenance than dogs.
Find a farm. Periodically taking your child out to a farm to see where our food comes from is a terrific learning experience, and it may just offer the added benefit of reducing your child’s risk of developing allergies.
Share bedrooms. Some parents of kids who have to share bedrooms feel they aren’t giving their kids the best of everything. But having siblings share a bedroom may be one of the best ways to allergy-proof your little ones.
(J Allergy Clin Immunol; article in press; accessed August 28, 2011)
Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, and nutrition, has taught medical, nursing, public health, and alternative medicine coursework. She has delivered over 150 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by the New York Times and Time magazine. Suzanne received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.