Does Exposure to Pest and Pet Allergens Reduce Child's Asthma Risk
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently published a study that said young children exposed to pet or pest allergens were at a lower risk in developing asthma.* Seems like a win-win: you can get a new family pet while preventing your newborn from developing asthma later in life. But, it might not be that that simple.
Those who live in urban areas are at a higher risk for developing asthma due to higher levels of air pollution and other factors. The 2017 NIH study conducted research with newborns living in urban areas and followed them until they were 7 years old. Investigators found that children exposed to high levels of pet and pest allergens, from cats, mice and cockroaches were less likely to have asthma at age 7. The researchers also concluded the risks of asthma are lowered when children were exposed to several types of allergens, bacteria and bacteria products, but more research is needed for specific prevention methods.
However, pet and pest allergens are a known risk factor for asthma flare-ups and more severe asthma in children if they are allergic to them and they are present in the home. Exposure to these allergens, (including dander and saliva from animals with fur or feathers), can cause asthma symptoms and trigger an episode. Other risk factors for asthma include personal and family medical history, viral infections, and exposure to other environmental factors such as secondhand smoke and indoor air pollution.
Christy Sadreameli, M.D., a pediatric pulmonologist and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said she sees a number of young patients who have mice in the home and have developed mouse allergy.
"Mouse allergen is very common in Baltimore City, where I practice, and it is a major asthma trigger for many children who have developed an allergy to it," Dr. Sadreameli said. "Because mice are so common in our city, it is likely that in many cases the mice have been present in the home from a young age, even infancy, and yet these children have severe asthma and they also have mouse allergy.
"If you think about a pet, such as a cat, it is a similar idea. Even though there is some evidence it may reduce the child's risk of developing the allergy later, there is no guarantee, and there is a risk the family could be stuck with a pet they love that's making their child very sick by triggering their asthma later on, which can be tough. It is complicated and we are still learning about the science behind this."
Because six million American children live with asthma and it is the third leading cause of hospitalization among children, it's important to consider other possible risk factors, said Dr. Sadreameli, who also serves as a volunteer spokesperson for the American Lung Association. If you are concerned about your child's susceptibility to asthma, speak with your doctor.
While asthma is a life-long disease with no cure, it can be managed and treated, allowing both adults and children to live an active, healthy life. How? The American Lung Association offers Asthma Basics, a free one-hour online course to help people learn more about asthma. The program teaches participants to recognize and manage triggers, understand the value of an asthma action plan, and recognize and respond to a breathing emergency. It's a good tool for those living with asthma, parents of children with asthma, school nurses, community health workers and friends and family. To access this program in either English or Spanish, visit Lung.org/asthma-basics.
*The observations come from the ongoing Urban Environment and Childhood Asthma study, which is funded by NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases through its Inner-City Asthma Consortium.