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  YourHealth > Kids  << Previous|Next >>
  Can We Prevent Asthma?

Asthma researchers now suspect that seemingly trivial changes in the way we keep house — from the introduction of wall-to-wall carpeting to the invention of cat litter — have helped drive an alarming nationwide rise in asthma incidence. Over the last few decades, this once-uncommon disorder has exploded into a major public health problem. Asthma now afflicts some 14 million Americans, about double the rate seen two decades ago.

The youngest kids have borne the brunt of the increase: The asthma rate for children age 4 and under shot up 160 percent between 1980 and 1994. And the asthma death rate for kids aged 5 to 14 nearly doubled. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, asthma now affects nearly one in 10 American kids.

While sensitization can occur at any age, young children, with their immature immune systems, are most vulnerable. The hope is that if youngsters encounter fewer allergens in early childhood, their immune systems will be less susceptible to allergies and asthma as they grow up.

Preliminary research lends credence to that hope. One study found that children who were born at the height of pollen season suffer more pollen allergies than kids born at other times of the year. Another showed that teen-agers born into families with house cats are more likely to have a cat allergy than teens who had no cats at home until later in life.

An asthma task force convened by the American College of Chest Physicians, after reviewing such findings, concluded in a 1992 report that "environmental manipulations directed at preventing (allergies)" should begin at birth in infants born to parents with asthma or allergies.

While allergen-laden indoor air is a top suspect in asthma's rise, it isn't the only culprit. Genes are another: Children with one asthmatic parent develop asthma at three to six times the rate of other kids, and those with two wheezing parents face 10 times the risk. Second-hand tobacco smoke also appears to play a role. Along with its other hazards, tobacco smoke appears to alter kids' immune systems in ways that increase their vulnerability to asthma and other allergies.

Other suspects range from obesity and lack of exercise to vaccines and antibiotics. While these modern medical advances can save kids from deadly respiratory infections, the rescue may come at a price. Some researchers suspect that an immune system without life-and-death work to do is more likely to mount a misguided attack against a normally inoffensive protein — the definition of an allergy.

- More articles on Asthma

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