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Wintertime No Holiday for Allergy-Prone Kids

More time indoors spells trouble; simple steps can help

SATURDAY, Dec. 25, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Ah, winter: low levels of ragweed, pollen and other outdoor allergens means kids with allergies can finally breathe easier, right?

Wrong. For too many children, wintertime means more time spent inside, with higher exposures to indoor allergy triggers such as dust mites, pets and mold, experts say.

"They get worse once the windows are shut and the heat goes on," said Dr. David J. Resnick, a professor of pediatrics at the Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital of New York-Presbyterian, in New York City.

Dust mites -- microscopic bugs that feed off dead human skin cells left in beds, carpets and upholstery -- are "the big one" when it comes to indoor allergens, said Dr. Shelly Harvey, a Dallas-based allergy specialist and spokeswoman for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

Harvey said even the cleanest homes will have dust mites. In fact, "they find dust mites in mattresses right out of the factory," she said. "They are in everybody's mattress and there's no way to get rid of them."

Cats, dogs and other furry family friends are another prime source of allergens, as are less-welcome household "visitors" such as cockroaches and mold.

But Resnick and Harvey said there are cheap, effective ways of keeping allergy-prone kids from indoor allergens this winter.

  • Zip it up. "Cover the mattress, box spring and pillow with special dust-proof covers that have zippers on them," Resnick said. These covers are cheap and made of a material that "allows the mattress and pillow to breathe but they filter out the dust mite particles," he said. Bed linens should be washed in water over 140 degrees. And stuffed animals should be removed from children's bedrooms. So should wall-to-wall carpeting because it's a perfect place for mites to proliferate.
  • Find Fido a new home (or bedroom). Ideally, "if kids are allergic to a cat or dog, the recommendation is to not have a cat or dog," Harvey said. Still, many families aren't willing to give up a beloved pet. In those cases, she said, "the animal needs at least to be kept out of the child's bedroom."
  • Keep roaches ravenous. Fumigation and well-placed traps can keep cockroaches at bay, but denying them food works even better. "This means common-sense stuff, like cleaning up food after meals and before bed, or sealing food tight," Harvey said.
  • Look for leaks. "With mold, parents should look under sinks, behind toilets, behind the fridge -- find where there might be any water leaks or moisture buildup, and get rid of that moisture," Resnick said. Mold can also settle on the decaying leaves of houseplants, so plants should be kept out of children's rooms, he said.

The experts also discourage the use of humidifiers or vaporizers unless absolutely necessary. If you must use a humidifier, keep it clean and change the water often, to avoid contamination by mold and bacteria. Central humidifiers should be sprayed with an anti-mold cleanser, they said.

Allergies and asthma often go hand-in-hand, so parents should be on the lookout for signs of allergy in asthmatic children. "An asthmatic who has allergies playing a role with their asthma will have problems with all these allergens that we just mentioned," Resnick said. "Instead of them having symptoms of runny nose and sneezing and itchy eyes, they'll have the coughing and the wheezing."

Resnick and Harvey agreed that allergies don't always go away once the summer allergen season is over. "The rest of the world may not know it," Resnick said, "but allergy patients with winter symptoms certainly do."

More information

To learn more about the prevention of allergies and asthma in children, go to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

SOURCES: David J. Resnick, M.D., associate clinical professor, pediatrics, Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital of New York-Presbyterian, New York City; Shelly Harvey, M.D., Dallas, and spokeswoman, American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology
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