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Thumb-sucking and nail-biting children suffer fewer allergies

Pearl Toh
21 Jul 2016

Children with oral habits of thumb-sucking or nail-biting were less likely to develop allergic hypersensitivity later in life, according to a recent study.

“Thumb-sucking and nail-biting are often seen as undesirable habits and are discouraged by many parents… Our findings suggest that these habits also may have some beneficial effects,” said the researchers.

Among 1,013 children included in the study, atopic sensitization, as assessed by skin-prick testing, was less common at age 13 in children who reported thumb-sucking or nail-biting during childhood compared with those who did not have any of the habits (38 vs 49 percent; p=0.009). [Pediatrics 2016;138:e20160443]

Children who reported both oral habits had an even lower rate of sensitization at age 13 than those without any oral habits (31 vs 49 percent; p=0.005).

Of the allergens tested in the skin-prick test, thumb-sucking or nail-biting children tested positive for fewer allergens (p=0.0297), with smaller total weal sizes (p=0.043) at age 13 than children without any oral habits. 

Similar trends persisted in adulthood when the children underwent skin-prick testing again at age 32 (p<0.001 for both number of allergens tested positive and total weal sizes).

Also, children with either one of the oral habits had a lower risk of developing atopic sensitization at age 13 (odds ratio [OR], 0.67; p=0.013) and age 32 (OR, 0.61; p=0.001). 

These associations remained even after accounting for differences in sex, parents’ history of allergy and smoking, breastfeeding, pet ownership, and socio-economic status.

“Our findings lend support to the hygiene hypothesis that avoiding oral environmental microbial exposures increases the risk for allergic sensitization to inhaled allergens,” said the researchers, noting that thumb-sucking and nail-biting were likely to increase children exposure to micro-organisms.

In addition, thumb-sucking or nail-biting was not associated with asthma or hay fever at age 13 and 32. Although both asthma and hay fever were commonly associated with hypersensitization, the researchers said there might be other contributing factors as well.

The population-based cohort study included 1,013 participants in Dunedin, New Zealand who were asked about their thumb-sucking and nail-biting habits at age 5, 7, 9 and 11 years, and underwent skin-prick testing at age 13 and 32 years.

While these oral habits were associated with a lower risk of developing sensitization to common allergens, children should not be encouraged to take up these habits, the authors clarified.  

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