Study: Children have one-year window to prevent future allergies

Parents who want to keep their kids allergy- and asthma-free down the road might want to ease up on protecting them from natural elements – even germs – in the first year of life, a study has found.

But it can be a bit of a fine line, local doctors say, between getting exposure and risking sickness.

The study, released this month by Johns Hopkins Medicine, shows that infants who come in contact with household germs, pet and rodent dander and roach allergens appear to be at a lower risk for developing allergies and asthma later in life.

The evidence continues to support a belief that children have a one-year window at the beginnings of their lives to let their bodies learn how to deal with certain elements, said Dr. John Beckerman, a community pediatrician and chair of the pediatrics department at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington.

“They’ve been exposed to it all along, so their body is less likely to say, ‘Hey, this is something foreign. We have to respond to this. We have to develop an allergy to protect ourselves,’” Beckerman said.

Past studies have linked an increased risk for asthma to kids who grow up in inner-city homes where allergens and pollutants are more abundant. But that exposure – if it comes by age 1 – could end up benefiting children later in life, according to the new study by scientists at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center and a handful of other institutions across the country.

The findings could shape how doctors view preventative strategies for allergies and wheezing, which can lead to asthma, the study says.

Beckerman doesn’t advocate a drastic shift in thinking, as exposure to bacteria out in the environment can, of course, cause children to get sick. But he said there’s value in not going overboard with sanitizing.

Taking the newborn outside or around pets and plants will get them that early exposure, he said.

“If you’re avoiding all these things completely, you might have some problems down the road,” he said.

Dr. Baby Than, a family practitioner at Centegra Hospital – Woodstock, takes a similar proceed-with-caution approach to the new findings. And she said the study’s results are no surprise, given her background.

Than, who’s from the Southeast-Asian country Myanmar, said allergies were not an issue back home – a fact she attributes to early exposure.

“I came from an underdeveloped country, so I used to see all the kids there,” she said. “We were exposed to everything.”

But getting parents – and in particular, first-time parents – to use that knowledge can be a difficult task, Than added.

“It’s hard to convince parents,” she said. “They will be very cautious about it. But on the other hand, how much is too cautious?”

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