Giving soon-to-be mothers and newborns doses of "good" bacteria may help prevent childhood allergies, new research suggests. The findings are preliminary, but allergy experts say they offer the first good evidence that harmless bacteria can train infants' immune systems to resist allergic reactions.
Researchers in Finland used a type of bacteria found naturally in the gut (called Lactobacillus rhamnosus) to try to prevent allergy development in at-risk babies. Cultured bacteria that can potentially promote health are called probiotics. Such cultures are found in certain foods like yogurt, kefir, and cheese.
Researchers at Turku University Hospital gave a group of pregnant women probiotic capsules every day for a few weeks before their due dates. For six months after delivery, women who breast-fed continued on the probiotics, while bottle-fed infants were given the capsules directly. All of the babies were considered to be at high risk of developing allergies because a parent or sibling was affected.
By the age of two years, 35% of the children had developed allergic eczema, a condition in which the skin becomes irritated, red and itchy. But children who had received probiotics were half as likely to develop the skin condition. However, the study was small, and the probiotics showed effects only on eczema. It is too soon to tell whether they may ward off asthma and other allergies.
Although the treatment has so far shown effects only on eczema, the researchers noted that eczema is often an indicator of a child's later asthma risk.
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