Do babies inherit allergies?
Allergies are not inherited, but the tendency to allergies is passed down, so if one or both parents have allergies, the baby is likely to develop allergies. If one parent has an allergy, the child is 40-50% more likely to have an allergy, although not necessarily the same allergy. If both parents have allergies, the child is 75-80% more likely to develop an allergy.
Even if both parents have allergies, to have an allergic reaction a baby has to be exposed to the allergen many times. It's the Bucket Theory.
Some people have a big bucket and may be exposed thousands of times without having an allergic reaction. Babies with allergic parents have smaller buckets and don't require as many exposures to have a reaction. It is very rare for a baby to develop a seasonal allergy such as ragweed before the age of 1 or 2 because it takes that long to have sufficient exposure. On the other hand, dust mite allergy, mold allergy, or pet dander allergy can appear at a very young age due to constant exposure.
It can be difficult to tell the difference between a common cold and baby allergies. If the symptoms subside in a week or two, it was probably a cold. If the baby has a continuous runny nose, stuffiness, and/or watery eyes, it could be an allergy. All babies are fussy at times; however, if a baby is fussy all the time, something is bothering the baby.
Here are some questions from The Baby Center website to ask yourself. If the answer is yes to any of them, an allergy could be the culprit. Your doctor can tell you for sure.
- Does it seem like your baby always has a cold?
- Is your baby's nose continually stuffy or running?
- Is she constantly wiggling, wiping, or pushing her nose up in what doctors call the allergic salute (see baby at right)?
- Is the mucus that drains from her nose clear and thin (as opposed to yellow or greenish and thick)?
- Are her eyes itchy, red, and watery?
- Does she seem to sneeze a lot?
- Does the skin under her eyes look dark or purple or blue - what doctors call allergic shiners?
- Does she breathe through her mouth?
- Does she have a dry cough?
- Is her skin irritated or broken out in an itchy red rash?
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) cites research that if anyone in the family has asthma or allergies, if the mother smoked cigarettes during pregnancy, or if the child has allergies there is an increased likelihood that the child will develop asthma at an early age. The AAFA goes on to say that the symptoms listed below could indicate asthma. However, other conditions have many of these symptoms, so only your doctor can tell for sure.
- Noisy breathing or breathing increased 50 percent above these normal respiration rates:
- newborns 30-60 breaths/minute
- 1st year 20-40 breaths/minute
- 2nd year 20-30 breaths/minute
- Wheezing (whistling sounds when a child exhales) or panting with normal activities
- Lethargy, disinterest in normal or favorite activities
- Difficulty sucking or eating
- Crying sounds softer, or different
The cause of asthma is not understood. It may be that some children and adults have hypersensitive airways that are more likely to be irritated by certain known triggers. The American Lung Association identifies the following risk factors in infants and young children:
- allergies - more than 50 percent of current asthma cases in the U.S. can be attributed to allergies
- exposure to secondhand smoke
- mother smoking during pregnancy
- outdoor air pollutants including ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide
Atopic dermatitis is often called eczema. "Atopic" means that it is an inherited allergic reaction. Eczema is an allergic response that causes red, scaly, itchy patches most often on the face, hands, behind the knees, and on the outer thighs. Although it can look scary to others, the condition is not contagious. Sometimes it is difficult to tell if a rash is the result of extremely dry skin or if it is eczema. Eczema generally first appears during infancy and will come and go as exposure to triggers fluctuates. If there is a family history of allergy, asthma or eczema or if the baby has an allergy or asthma, the rash you see is likely to be eczema. Your doctor can tell for sure.
Here are some tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to prevent flare-ups if your baby develops eczema that is triggered by exposure to certain allergens:
- Avoid giving baby foods that cause an allergic reaction.
- Put baby in long-sleeved sleepwear to help prevent nighttime scratching.
- Keep the skin well moisturized with creams and lotions.
- Avoid sudden changes in temperature or humidity.
- Choose soft clothing, such as cotton, rather than rough scratchy clothing, such as wool.
- Avoid soaps that contain harsh perfumes and deodorants.
- Use soaps and moisturizers that won't dry your skin -- look for ones that are hypo-allergenic and unscented, and avoid antibacterial products.
- Use laundry products that are free of dyes and perfumes.
- Give baby shorter baths in warm (not hot) water.
- Gently pat, instead of rubbing dry after the shower or bath to avoid irritating the skin.
- Always thoroughly wash new clothes before using them.
- In the winter, keep the air in your home moist by using a humidifier or vaporizer, or placing pans of water on the radiator.
Limiting your baby's exposure to allergens is the best way to prevent or control allergies. The American Lung Association (ALA) states:
Children spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors. Young people are particularly susceptible to indoor air pollution because their bodies are continuing to develop. Because children breathe in 50 percent more air per pound than adults, if indoor air quality is poor, they inhale and absorb a greater volume of contaminants into the lungs.
The AAAAI says that "it makes good common sense that, since some airborne substances may trigger allergy or asthma symptoms, reducing contact with these substances early in life may delay or prevent the onset of allergy or asthma symptoms." The most prevalent indoor allergens are dust mite, pollen, pet, and mold. Following are steps to take to avoid each one.
How to Avoid Dust Mite Allergen
- Use zippered mite proof covers on all bedding where baby sleeps - your bed, too, if baby sleeps with you.
- Any bedding, curtains, dust ruffles, or stuffed animals that cannot be covered should be washed every 1-2 weeks in very hot water (130 degrees) or with a special laundry additive or detergent that will either kill dust mites or neutralize allergen so it is not irritating to baby.
- Keep relative humidity below 50% since dust mites thrive in a moist environment. A humidity gauge can help monitor humidity. If it is consistently high, a dehumidifier may be needed in your home.
- If possible, remove carpet from baby's room (and your room if baby sleeps with you). If this is not feasible, use carpet treatments to kill dust mites and neutralize the allergen.
- NO SMOKING in your home or around baby or while mom is pregnant.
- When you can, choose leather or wood furniture instead of upholstered furniture since dust mites need lots of fabric to live in. Again, upholstery can be treated to kill dust mites or neutralize allergen.
- Remove as many dust-catching knick-knacks as possible since one component of house dust is dust mite allergen. Dusting often helps, too, especially with a fragrance-free polish or a special dusting cloth.
- Vacuum often to capture allergen that has settled on the floor. Use a HEPA-filtered vacuum so the particles don't escape back into the room with the exhausted air.
- The AAAAI recommends breast feeding for the first 6 months to strengthen the baby's immune system.
- To prevent asthma, the AAAAI also says it is best to avoid group day care for very young children to reduce exposure to respiratory infections that can trigger asthma.
How To Avoid Pollen
- Keep baby indoors when pollen counts are high and keep windows closed.
- Use a HEPA air purifier especially in baby's room to capture airborne pollen and other allergens.
- Have the family change clothes immediately when coming inside.
- Wipe off the cat or dog when it comes inside because pollen sticks to everything.
How To Avoid Mold
- Fix leaks immediately.
- Keep relative humidity under 50%. Using your air conditioning may be enough, and a humidity gauge can help you maintain proper humidity. If humidity is continuously high, you may need a dehumidifier.
- Watch for mold in damp areas like bathrooms, basements, and around windows where condensation may occur and clean it away quickly if found.
How To Avoid Pet Dander
- The best and most obvious way is to not have a pet.
- However, if you have a pet (maybe you had it before baby and it is like family and you can't part with it), keep the pet outdoors if possible. At the very least, keep the pet out of the baby's room.
- Bathe the pet weekly in an anti-allergen shampoo.
- Moisturize the pet's skin to reduce dander.
- Wipe the pet off regularly to remove dander as well as other allergens.
If your baby's doctor confirms allergies, in addition to making the changes above, he or she may recommend medicine. If the doctor diagnoses asthma, he or she may prescribe inhaled medications that reach the lungs quickly. This is often administered with a compressor/nebulizer. Sometimes your doctor might recommend a spacer that allows the child to breathe the medication from a chamber (see illustration at left) or a peak flow meter to tell how quickly air can be expelled from the lungs to monitor the need for medication.
Allergies are no fun at any age, but it is always distressing to see a miserable baby. Using environmental controls like the ones above will definitely help reduce the indoor triggers of allergies, asthma, and eczema. Making changes in your home will also help lessen the symptoms caused by allergies. It's a process. Start with the easiest changes first, and just keep at it until your baby's room and your home are allergy safe zones.