How genes can influence allergies
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How likely is it that your baby will develop an allergy?
Allergic conditions such as asthma, eczema, hayfever and food sensitivities are fairly commonplace, with most of us knowing someone who suffers from them or even suffering from one ourselves. It is estimated that food allergies affect around 6–8% of infants1, while only 2–7.5% have cows’ milk allergy, which they usually grow out of by the age of three. However, allergies are on the rise around the world, and 20% of people in the UK now suffer from some kind of allergy2.
According to Allergy
So is there anything you can do in pregnancy to prevent your unborn baby from developing an allergy? The answer is, quite simply, no. The best advice experts can give is for expectant mums to eat a healthy, balanced diet and look after their general health.
This genetic link is known as atopy and, by considering any existing allergies in your family, you can establish a level of risk for your baby. For example, the chances of atopy are increased if one parent or sibling has an allergy – further still if both parents have an allergy. And if both parents have the same type of condition, the risk increases again. However, even if your child is atopic, there’s nothing to say that they’ll develop the same allergies as you and your partner.
So, just because you have an allergy, it doesn’t necessarily mean your child will too. And likewise, if there’s no history of allergy in your family, there’s still a 1 in 10 chance that your child could develop one.
While genetics are involved in causing allergies, it is also widely accepted that the environment we live in can influence the development of allergies from an early age. Babies may be more sensitive to their surroundings and the things they come into contact with than older children, as they still have an immature immune and digestive system. So it’s worth considering the following steps to avoid triggering allergies from the very beginning:
Baby skin care
A newborn’s skin is very delicate and sensitive and the natural oils on the surface are there to protect it. For the first month, using just plain water to wash and clean your baby’s skin or when you change their nappy is thought to help avoid skin problems. The British Association of Dermatologists also recommends avoiding products that may irritate the skin, such as soap, detergents and wool.
In very rare cases the clothes your baby wears may cause an allergy, but if they experience irritation from a fabric you put next to their delicate skin, it’s more likely to be caused by the clothes having been washed in a biological detergent. Opt for mild, non-biological detergents instead and make sure you wash any new or second-hand clothes before dressing your baby in them for the first time.
This doesn’t just mean the quality of the air outdoors. Your baby will be breathing in all sorts of chemicals we use at home on a daily basis, so it’s a good idea to avoid perfumes, deodorants, hairsprays and cleaning products in your baby’s room. Cigarette smoke should always be avoided too and no family members or visitors should smoke near a newborn baby.
By breastfeeding your baby for at least the first 6 months of their life, you could be protecting them from illness as well as reducing their risk of developing allergies. This is because breast milk contains all the nutrients your baby needs, along with antibodies from your immune system. But as natural as it is, some mums experience difficulties in the early days of breastfeeding. It’s always worth persevering with it if you can, and remember our breastfeeding advisors are only a call away if you need any guidance and support.
In all allergy cases, early diagnosis and treatment
Ways to help minimise allergy symptoms:
- Wash your baby’s clothes in non-biological detergent
- Avoid using cleaning fluids or perfumes in your baby’s room
- If you are breastfeeding, continue until they are 6 months old
- See your GP for an early diagnosis
1. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). Food allergy in children and young people [Online]. 2011. Available at: http://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg116/evidence/full-guideline-136470061 [Accessed Janaury 2016]
2. Worldwide variation in prevalence of symptoms of asthma, allergic rhinoconjunctivitis, and atopic eczema. The International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood (ISAAC) Steering Committee. Lancet 1998;351:1225–32.
Last reviewed: 28th July 2014
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