We parents are a bunch of worriers at the best of times. Now, with fears that allergies – asthma, eczema, hay fever, food allergies to name but a few – are set to balloon into the epidemic of the 21st century, our already frayed nerves are in danger of being torn to shreds.
But, says Prof Dr Ruby Pawankar, it’s important not to panic: by observing your child, taking action if you suspect an allergy and seeking treatment in the early stages, it is possible to keep a lid on the symptoms.
Dr Pawankar is treasurer of the World Allergy Organisation and she chaired the tongue-twisting Middle East Asia Allergy Asthma Immunology Congress, which took place in Dubai last month.
She says the increase in allergies is partly due to the fact we’re too obsessed with being clean (not what you were expecting, hey?). We no longer let our kids play in the compost heap or eat food off the floor, and we’re much more fastidious when it comes to protecting them from germs and infections, meaning their immune systems aren’t given the chance to work and grow.
Dr Pawankar is not suggesting we become unhygenic or return to the dark ages of infectious diseases, but there is evidence to suggest that our over-cleanliness, combined with climate change, rising pollution and more preservatives in food have all led to a global allergy swell.
‘As people live cleaner, healthier, less infection-prone lives, allergies increase in frequency,’ Dr Pawankar says. ‘Allergies will continue to increase and plague those very areas where lifestyles are improving and towns are urbanising.’
There are few statistics available for the UAE, but recent estimates indicate that almost 16 per cent of children aged six to 13 years could suffer from asthma, rhinitis, eczema or other allergic diseases.
So what are we allergic to in the UAE? Surely not pollen – we live in the desert for goodness’ sake. But you’d be surprised. There are allergens in desert grasses, date palms and the like, plus house dust mites and mould (think of your air conditioning units and upholstery) are prime sources. The fact that there’s so much sand around, both natural and from construction, means sandstorms can transport these allergens quickly around the city.
On top of that, it seems that every day we hear another scare story about food allergies and the dangers that some foods – the usual suspects being nuts, shellfish, milk, eggs, wheat and citrus fruits – pose to our children.
For concerned parents, the symptoms of allergies can look a lot like common childhood illnesses. Sickness and diarrhoea, runny noses, rashes and sneezing could all indicate an allergy, or it could be just another bug – the kind they bring home from school or nursery every other week.
Often allergies are inherited, so if cats make you scratch or you have a nut allergy, chances are your child may have the same reaction. Dr Pawankar says the key is careful observation. Watch out for the symptoms, noting when and where they occur.
Does your daughter develop the sniffles around the dog? Does your son show signs of swelling and blotchiness after eating prawns? If you’re suspicious, see a doctor, as they are the only one who can tell you if your child has an allergy.
‘If you suspect anything, visit an allergist or a pediatrician. They can do the relevant skin and blood tests and tell you what your child is allergic to,’ Dr Pawankar says.
In many cases, allergies are simply irritating; they’re an extra challenge to face during the day, but the most worrying potential reaction is anaphylactic shock – usually triggered by food allergies, bee stings or allergies to medication.
In extreme cases your child may experience a choking sensation, have difficulty breathing and collapse. Testing for allergies and avoiding the culprits are, of course, the first lines of treatment, but thankfully there is plenty of safe and effective medication available on the market to help prevent such attacks.
There’s not an awful lot us mums and dads can do to prevent allergies, although breast feeding is believed to help boost a child’s immune system. ‘But you can prevent the progression of disease by getting the right diagnosis and taking the right allergy shots that make the body tolerant to allergens,’ says Dr Pawankar. ‘That’s much more sensible than leaving the child to suffer. These allergies can be controlled.’
In the home, despite the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ that says a bit of dirt will do you no harm, once your child shows signs of allergies, it’s best to avoid the culprits altogether. Dust mites survive for longer in humid conditions and in carpets, upholstery, soft toys and so on.
Just because wall-to-wall carpets are not overly common in Dubai homes, doesn’t mean there aren’t allergens lurking around, so it’s important to get air-con units serviced and cleaned regularly, and give those mattresses and curtains a once-over with the vacuum cleaner every so often. For those with food allergies, read labels like they’re gripping novels and, most importantly, says Dr Pawankar, don’t hesitate to seek treatment.
‘I’m not trying to scare parents. I just want them to watch their children and be aware so they can act quickly and properly. Something as minor as a sneeze, if neglected, can over time lead to a wheeze. If the appropriate treatment is given as early as possible, these allergies can be well controlled and children can live normal lives.’