Asthma is on the rise in the United States, and it now affects almost 8% of the population. It’s a life-long disease characterized by episodes of wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness. Sadly, a severe asthma episode can lead to death if not treated promptly. It would be best if we could prevent this all too common disease. Now a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that the risk of asthma in children is lower in farm children than it is in kids who make their home in the city. Could this offer insight into preventing this disease?
The Risk of Asthma in Children: Are Farm Children at Lower Risk?
Kids who live on farms have a lower risk of asthma compared to city dwellers. Why the lower risk? Experts believe that farm-dwelling children are exposed to a greater diversity of microorganisms, which helps protect them against asthma.
Researchers at the University of Munich collected dust from the bedrooms of kids living on farms and in urban cities. They found that farm children breathed in a wider range of bacteria and fungi, which may have the surprising effect of reducing their risk of asthma.
No one knows exactly how – but exposure to a wide range of microbes seems to alter the immune system in such a way that makes asthma in children less likely. Researchers are now in the process of trying to identify which bacteria and fungi farm children are exposed to that seem to protect them from asthma. This opens up the possibility that a vaccine could be developed based on these microbes.
Risk of Asthma and The Hygiene Hypothesis
Exposure to bacteria, viruses and fungi early in life isn’t all bad. Some experts believe the rise in allergic disease, autoimmune disorders and asthma can be partially explained by the hygiene hypothesis. Babies whose immune systems aren’t challenged early in life by exposure to a diversity of “bugs” may have an immune system that over-responds later in life. These diseases are less common in developing countries and as developing countries become more advanced, they become “cleaner” and the incidence of these diseases goes up.
Asthma and Children: The Bottom Line?
Sterile isn’t necessarily better for the immune system – and for asthma risk. Farm children benefit from exposure to bacteria and fungi that might seem unfriendly, but it keeps their immune system from “overreacting” – a problem which could lead to a lifelong case of asthma.
Eurekalert.org. “Microbes Help Children to Breathe Easily”