A recent study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology suggests early daycare attendance may protect high-risk infants from later developing asthma.
The study examined the relationship between the age at which daycare begins and the amount of immunoglobulin E in a child's blood. IgE is an antibody produced by the immune system that serves as an indicator of allergic sensitivity.
"Everybody's bodies have the potential to create these antibodies," explains Dr. Annie Khuntia, a clinical associate professor in the section of pediatric allergy and immunology at the University of Chicago. "The higher the IgE level, the greater the risk and severity of the disease."
Asthma is a chronic disease of the airways that makes breathing difficult. There is a strong genetic component; family history of asthma is the strongest risk factor for a child.
But environment can play a role, too.
The study found that high-risk children-kids with the genetic piece who should have had the highest levels of the antibody-who went to daycare by 3 months old had lowered IgE levels. Children who attended daycare had lower levels than those whose daycare was at home or who didn't attend daycare at all.
"We live in such an extremely clean society that our bodies aren't being exposed to all of the germs that should naturally strengthen our immune systems," Khuntia says. "The response is that the body stimulates the allergic part of the immune system."
Putting a child in daycare can expose them to viruses and bacteria.
The finding "suggests that multiple environments earlier in life may be beneficial … and that being exposed to more germs and bacteria seems to be the key," Khuntia says.
The 'why' is still unknown. "It's important to note this was only found to be beneficial in high-risk kids with a family history," stresses Khuntia. So know your family history and look for early signs and symptoms such as persistent coughing, shortness of breath and crying or getting upset often, which can lead to coughing and shortness of breath.
Khuntia also encourages all parents, but especially those with a genetic predisposition to allergies and asthma, to minimize exposures to non-specific irritants such as cigarette smoke.