The New American Dream: Allergies in Children
May 17, 2013
The phrase "The American Dream" is bandied about with fervor, used to describe the many different ideas U.S. citizens have about the pursuit of personal happiness. The United States Library of Congress offers examples of this dream, including this portion of the Declaration of Independence: "...that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." In The Epic of America, James Truslow Adams had this description: "…a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable…." Another dream was the desire of World War II veterans to come home, own a house and a car, and raise a family comfortably. Before he was President, Barack Obama wrote a book titled The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.
How are we to decide which of these is the real American Dream? The United States isn't a monolithic society, and if you asked 50 people, you might get 50 different definitions. We may never pinpoint what the American Dream means with any accuracy, but if it is something that many of us desire, there may be a new candidate for the honor.
According to the Nemours Foundation, about 50 million residents of the United States have something in common, something that interferes with their quest for happiness. These individuals all suffer from allergies, including millions of young children. For these individuals, the new American Dream might be one where they could go outside without their eyes watering up and their nose dripping. They may dream of eating a handful of peanuts without worrying about their throat closing and their face swelling, or dream of cleaning their home without the dust making them miserable.
Allergy sufferers may not fully understand what is happening to make their bodies react in such an uncomfortable way. An allergic reaction is the result of an overactive immune system response to what is an undisruptive entrant into the body. To counter the attack by the mote of dust you may have just breathed in, the body produces immunoglobulin antibodies, which then release other chemicals, including histamine. These chemicals are what cause reactions like runny noses, itchy/watery eyes, irritated skin and closed throats. All this discomfort is the result of an attempt to eject the "harmful intruder" that has entered the body. This happens when someone comes in contact with an allergen, whether they are near or it they ingest it.
How do these allergies develop, though? They don't just appear. Allergies are often hereditary, but that doesn't mean if a parent is allergic to cats their child is automatically allergic to cats. What is hereditary is the immune system over-reacting to harmless allergens entering the body. If a parent has allergies, their child is more likely than not to develop allergies as well.
Allergies are only getting worse for Americans, especially children. According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), the percentage of U.S. children with food and skin allergies climbed between 1997 and 2011. The NCHS noted that the rate for food allergies rose from 3.4 percent to 5.1 percent, and the rate of skin allergies increased from 7.4 percent to 12.5 percent. Respiratory allergies changed little, hovering around 17 percent, but that still made this the most common type of allergy for children.
Dr. Scott Sicherer, chief of pediatric allergy and immunology at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, said "We do not know why there has been an increase, but the theories include the 'hygiene hypothesis'; that reduced infection and reduced exposure to germs has left our immune systems 'looking for a fight' and attacking innocent proteins."
That doesn't mean nothing is being done to figure out why.
"We and others are undertaking studies to try to better understand the risk factors and opportunities for prevention, while aggressively doing research on multiple means to treat those with food allergies," Sicherer said.
What does this have to do with the American Dream? Aren't allergies just a fact of human existence? Well, according to a study released in JAMA Pediatrics, allergies may affect Americans more than anyone else.
Dr. Jonathan Silverberg and colleagues at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York wrote: "Foreign-born Americans have significantly lower risk of allergic disease than U.S.-born Americans. However, foreign-born Americans develop increased risk for allergic disease with prolonged residence in the United States."
It would seem that debilitating allergies are a particularly American phenomenon, especially in small children. Pollen, grass clippings, dust, animals and food have the potential to make life miserable, or even end it. Some people may experience what is known as anaphylaxis, which is an extreme reaction that could become life threatening if untreated. Luckily anaphylaxis is very rare, and only occurs in 30 out of every 100,000 cases, but it is a danger.
Pediatricians and pediatric nurse practitioners are dedicated to caring for children, and they may treat patients suffering through an allergic attack. As for preventive, long-term care, they may only be able to guide parents toward allergy medicine to help combat symptoms, or prescribe an epinephrine autoinjector to be used in the case of an extreme attack. Respiratory therapists may also work with children with allergies, for example, those who experience an allergic reaction to a bee sting.
Living without allergies would allow many children to pursue happiness. They could roll in the grass, eat whatever they want, or own a pet without fear of an attack. Let's hope one of the studies being conducted finds a way to help children achieve this dream.