What is an allergy?
An allergy occurs when the immune system overreacts to a substance that’s normally harmless to most people. These substances are known as allergens and may be found in foods, some medicines and our environment. Allergies are becoming increasingly common in Australia and New Zealand, and affect up to 40% of children.
The most common causes of allergic reactions include:
- Indoors: Dust mites, pets and moulds
- Outdoors: Pollen, insect bites and stings
- Foods: Peanuts, cow’s milk, soy, seafood and eggs
- Some medicines
A substance that is an allergen for one child may not be for another ‐ everyone reacts differently.
What are the symptoms of allergies in children?
When exposed to an allergen, a child may experience the following symptoms:
- Skin rashes or hives (atopic dermatitis or eczema)
- Difficulty breathing
- Sneezing, coughing, a runny nose or itchy eyes, also known as allergic rhinitis or hayfever
- Stomach upset
Allergy symptoms depend on the substance involved and where it enters the body. For example, when pollen is breathed in, it may trigger hayfever symptoms in some people. Food allergies are likely to cause digestive upset or skin problems.
The severity of allergies can also vary from child to child. Symptoms can be mild or may disturb sleep and impact on learning and behaviour. Some types of allergies have the potential to trigger a severe reaction known as anaphylaxis, which requires immediate medical attention.
Why do kids get allergies?
Any child can develop allergies but they’re more common in children with a family history of hayfever, eczema or hives.3 Having one type of allergic condition also increases the risk of developing another. In addition, it’s believed that kids exposed to cow’s or soy milk formula before the age of three to four months may be at an increased risk of developing food allergies and eczema, and that passive exposure to cigarette smoke can increase the possibility of respiratory symptoms. Kids sometimes outgrow allergies as they grow older but it’s also common for allergies to go away temporarily only to resurface sometime later.
Why allergies are on the rise is still subject to debate. Some theories include:
- The ‘hygiene hypothesis’, which suggests that our living conditions are too ‘clean’ and that kids aren’t being exposed to germs that would otherwise train their immune systems to tell the difference between harmful and harmless substances.
- The increased use of antibiotics, which may impact on the balance of bacterial flora in the digestive tract.
Can childhood allergies be reduced?Allergies are still an active area of research but there are factors that have been identified to reduce their risk in children. These include:
- Avoid smoking in pregnancy and in the presence of the child.
- Breastfeed where possible for at least six months or using a partially‐hydrolysed (hypoallergenic) cow’s milk formula.
- Delay the introduction of solids until four to six months of age and introduce one new food at a time so that any reactions can be identified.
- Take a probiotic supplement in pregnancy as it may help to reduce the risk of eczema in children.
- Give your child a probiotic which may reduce eczema symptoms.
How can I help manage my child’s allergies?
Allergies can be bothersome or downright miserable for everyone involved. If your child has been diagnosed with an allergy there are steps you can take to reduce its impact on their daily routine or fun. These include:
- Avoid allergy triggers where possible. For example, use allergen‐proof covers on bedding for dust mite allergies, avoid going outside on high pollen days or wear sunglasses, and smear Vaseline inside the nose during allergy season.
- Investigate appropriate medicines to assist with symptoms.
- Talk to your healthcare professional about immunotherapy if allergies are severe or not relieved by other treatment.