A Cure for Asthma?

My three year old has asthma which is brought on by exercise, temperature and humidity changes, and allergies. He is severely allergic to peanuts and pecans, moderately allergic to cashews, and slightly allergic to far too many things to mention. I asked him if he would like to live in a plastic bubble and he seemed enthusiastic, but Mr. Lawyer voted me down.

I just saw this news article today. It’s interesting, if rather disgusting:

Could lice be the secret to preventing asthma?

Research on mice shows that those carrying the most lice had calmer immune systems than uninfested rodents, and they said their finding may have implications for studying the causes of asthma and allergies in people.

The study, published in the BioMed Central journal BMC Biology, adds to evidence supporting the so-called hygiene hypothesis, which holds that the rise in asthma and allergies can be linked to hyper-clean living.

The idea is that if the immune system is not properly primed in childhood, immune cells can improperly react to harmless triggers such as pollen or bits of dander. Bacterial and viral infections do not seem to be the priming factor, but researchers have been focusing lately on parasites.

Joseph Jackson of Britain’s University of Nottingham and colleagues wanted to test real, wild mice, not hygienic lab mice that had been raised for generations in ultra-clean conditions.

“Our understanding of mammalian immunology is largely based on rodents reared under highly unnatural pathogen- and stress-free conditions,” Nottingham’s Janette Bradley, who helped lead the study, said in a statement.

They trapped mice and studied their immune systems.

Mice uninfested with the louse Polyplax serrata had much more excitable immune systems than the mice carrying a heavy load of the parasites, they found.

It might be suppressing the immune system in some way, they speculated, perhaps by transmitting some other parasite or microbe or perhaps in its saliva as it feeds on the blood of its host.

The hygiene hypothesis holds that the immune system evolved when people were constantly infected by a host of worms and other parasites — from the mosquito-transmitted malaria parasite to various lice and ticks.

“Much like laboratory mice, people in developed countries are currently exposed to a very different profile of infections to that encountered by their ancestors,” the researchers wrote.

“It is possible that the immune dysfunctions we see today are the result of immune systems calibrated for a set of challenges completely different to those they now routinely face.”

Humans can also be infested with lice, although the species that affects humans does not affect other animals.

I’d like to stress that in no way could our lifestyle be considered “hyper-clean living” by any stretch of the imagination. I’d like it to be, but I’m just not a very good housewife when it comes to scouring baseboards and the like. My kids are happy, reasonably clean, well-fed, and loved and hopefully that’s what they will remember when they think back to their childhood, not that mommy didn’t dust the credenza as often as she should have.

Beastling 2 never did breathe well – from the moment of birth he had breathing issues. Those were attributed to his surgical birth, though. Many c-section babies have trouble breathing initially because their lungs don’t get wrung out like normal deliveries do.

In addition there is a documented link between c-sections and asthma, which, as a mother of three surgically birthed children, is concerning.

However my father has asthma and it was severe as a child. Mister Lawyer had some degree of it as a child, but has outgrown it entirely. And I was never diagnosed as a child but rather told that I had “weak lungs” whatever that means. I don’t ever recall wheezing except when ill and I am reluctant to diagnose anything at all. I can say that I have developed a wheeze recently that I most certainly did not have before and have been diagnosed with adult onset asthma. The allergist suspects I always had some degree of it, but I’m not so sure. Regardless, I am the proud owner of my very own inhaler which works like a charm when I need it. I should add that I am not a smoker and have never been a smoker.

So my point with all that is that I don’t think I can blame the c-section – at least not entirely. I do wonder if it triggered some genetic predilection to asthma that was already present. Of course we can never know.

At 17 months old he developed a mild cold that progressed into wheezing and a clear inability to breathe well. He became lethargic and off color and we took him to to the emergency room where they gave him several breathing treatments, monitored him, and sent us home. Over that winter we hit the ER 3 more times and were diagnosed with asthma in January 2007.

His condition is generally well controlled, although it can still be unpredictable at times. Despite being fully stocked with albuterol and other medications, we were unable to get his breathing under control recently and ended up in urgent care where they administered 4 breathing treatments and started a course of before his breathing improved enough to be released.

We are hoping he grows out of it, like his father, but it actually seems to have gotten worse over the last year. Still, even my father, who’s asthma was very severe, even life-threatening, has had many fewer episodes as an adult.

When I read studies like the one quoted above, I wonder if there may be some validity to the “cleanliness” theory as it applies to society as a whole and I will be interested to see what comes of this research. If it means the clutter on the counter might have some scientifically proven health benefits, then that’s just an added bonus for me.

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