The Year in Science: Roaches and Asthma

A recent study linkes cockroach allergies to severe asthma in children.

By Unmes Kher
Jan 1, 1998 6:00 AMMay 9, 2023 2:17 PM


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Asthma is like a deadly sensitivity to life. Anything from dust to passing clouds to stress induces the response that constricts the asthmatic’s airways, leaving the victim with a frightening sensation of drowning in air. It is a chronic ailment brought on by a barely understood concoction of genetic, psychological, and environmental factors—including cockroaches, according to a study released last May.

The incidence of asthma is especially high in poor inner-city neighborhoods. Looking for an explanation for that pattern, allergist David Rosenstreich of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City and his colleagues spent a year studying 1,500 asthmatic ghetto children in eight different cities. The researchers assessed the kids’ sensitivity to 14 common allergens and in nearly half the cases actually measured the levels of cat dander, dust-mite droppings, and cockroach proteins in the homes. They also evaluated the mental health of the mothers—when it’s bad, they found, the asthma of the child is more likely to be severe. Secondhand smoke, stress, and air pollution also turned out to be contributing factors.

But in the end the kids with the worst cases of asthma—who suffered more frequent and acute attacks—were those with the most sensitivity and exposure to cockroaches. They had three times as many hospitalizations as other asthmatic children, says Rosenstreich. They had twice as many emergency visits, missed school more often, and woke up more often. High exposure to cockroaches also seems to boost a child’s risk of developing asthma in the first place, by creating the allergy that eventually leads to the disease.

Fear of crime exacerbates the problem: parents who keep their children indoors inadvertently expose them to higher levels of cockroach allergens. Yet while it is not in the parents’ power to control crime or air pollution, or even stress, says Rosenstreich, they may be able to take preventive measures and control the number of cockroaches. We feel that people should make every effort to clean up their indoor environment and make it allergen-proof, especially the bedroom, he says. That will help kids with asthma, even if it doesn’t cure it. It’s a safe and simple thing to do.

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