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How can I keep my son from developing allergies?

The question: It feels like kids are getting allergies all the time. My seven-year-old son doesn't suffer from anything right now. Are there any healthy habits or tips to help keep him that way?

The answer: Allergies are certainly more common now than they were in the past. A recent study concluded that the number of people with peanut allergy has tripled in the past decade. Perhaps most disconcerting is the fact that we don't fully understand why rates of allergic disease continue to rise.

A popular theory is the "hygiene hypothesis," which suggests that our relatively clean, germ-free, modern environment may contribute to our immune system being unable to process common allergens. About five per cent of Canadians will develop a serious food allergy, while as many as one in six will suffer from environmental allergies such as hay fever.

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Genetic factors also play a significant role in allergic diseases, so if you and your spouse are relatively allergy-free, that bodes well for your son. While it is possible for allergies to develop at any age, most children have developed symptoms prior to the age of 7. Bottom line, if your son isn't already troubled with allergies, then I don't think you need to do anything further.

For those children and teens who do have environmental allergies, this time of year can be particularly problematic. April and May are notorious for having high pollen counts from common trees such as oak, birch, and maple. Those who are allergic to grasses tend to suffer in the summer, while children with ragweed sensitivity develop symptoms in August and September.

It is possible to track the daily pollen counts in most regions of the country using online resources such as The Weather Network. Children with more severe environmental allergies may want to stay indoors when pollen counts are high. Changing clothes after being outside and keeping windows closed will help keep your home pollen-free.

Classic allergy symptoms include sneezing, runny nose and itchy, watery eyes. If your child has environmental allergies consider using a non-sedating antihistamine such as loratadine (Claritin), or desloratadine (Aerius). These medications are available without prescription and come in child friendly liquid form. Some children and teens will feel better if they take their allergy medicine daily throughout their allergy season. Antihistamines are generally well-tolerated with few side effects. Consult your physician if your child takes other medications or has an underlying medical condition.

Inside the home, dust and dust mites are the most common cause of allergy symptoms. Reduce these allergens by encasing mattresses and pillows in dust covers and keeping carpeting to a minimum, especially in the bedroom. Dust mites thrive in humid environments so maintaining your home's humidity level at less than 50 per cent is critical. Families with allergy sufferers may want to buy an inexpensive electronic hygrometer to measure and monitor home humidity. Indoor humidity can be controlled with the use of dehumidifiers, air exchangers and air conditioners.

Dr. Michael Dickinson is the head of pediatrics and chief of staff at the Miramichi Regional Hospital in New Brunswick. He's a staunch advocate for children's health in Atlantic Canada through his involvement with the Canadian Paediatric Society.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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