When the immune system of a child is unable to insulate itself from allergens in certain foods, dust or pollens, the result is an allergic reaction and the child is said to have allergies.
Allergies can impair a child’s ability to sleep, play and function in school.
Children with eczema – a skin condition that is usually the earliest manifestation of allergies – have a predisposition to develop other allergies.
Eczema, also called atopic dermatitis, is more likely to occur in young children. These children may later develop allergies of the nose or the lungs.
This process of evolution of one form of allergy to another is known as the Atopic March. The term “atopic” signifies that a child is allergic to various foods and environmental triggers.
Allergies seem to be more prevalent among children whose family members have a history of allergies.
As it is not feasible for parents to control the external environment and their child’s eating habits completely, their attention should be focused on observing the symptoms.
The early detection of allergies enables parents and doctors to formulate strategies to control the symptoms and enable the child to lead a normal life.
In the United States, up to 50 million people, including many children, suffer from some form of allergy.
Symptoms and causes
Common symptoms of allergies in children are:
• Skin rashes
• Trouble breathing
• Stomachache, vomiting and/or diarrhoea
• Itchy and watery eyes
• Cold, cough and/or sneezing
Common allergens include:
• External environmental triggers like plant pollen and insect bites
• Indoor allergy triggers like pet or animal fur, dust mites and cockroaches
• Food allergens like cow’s milk, eggs, fish, peanuts and wheat
Many children outgrow allergies to cow’s milk and eggs as they get older. However, fish and peanut allergies generally persist.
Meanwhile, wheat can cause a severe life-threatening allergic reaction.
• Medicine allergies like allergies to penicillin or sulpha drugs
Diagnosis and treatment
Some allergies can be fairly easily identified, while others can have obscure symptoms that are difficult to pinpoint to an allergy.
Eczema manifests itself through skin rashes, accompanied by severe itching.
Allergic rhinitis, also called hay fever, is a nasal allergy that is common among children suffering from eczema.
Most children do not start suffering from hay fever until they reach school age. Allergy triggers in the environment like pets, pollen and dust, can cause hay fever.
If cold symptoms persist for a week or two in a child, or symptoms always occur at a certain time of the year, hay fever should be suspected.
Asthma, a form of lung allergy, manifests itself as cough, wheezing and difficulty in breathing. Such children generally show a good response to medicine given in inhaled form.
Symptoms of food allergies observed in young children include vomiting, diarrhoea, runny nose and sneezing.
In rare cases, children may suffer a severe reaction called anaphylaxis, which can be fatal.
It is important to identify whether the reaction observed in young children is due to food allergies or food intolerance.
The signs and symptoms of food intolerance and food allergy can be similar, but are generally milder in the former.
A classic example of food intolerance is lactose intolerance, where the enzyme needed to digest lactose in milk is deficient.
A person with lactose intolerance can drink lactose-free milk without any problems.
Medicine allergies generally manifest as skin rashes, and in rare cases, may cause life-threatening anaphylaxis.
Diagnostic tests to identify the allergens triggering the allergic reaction include both skin and blood tests.
Test findings are usually correlated with the observed symptoms before making a final diagnosis.
In severe cases, the child may need consultation with an allergist, who is a medical doctor who specialises in allergies.
While allergies cannot be eliminated totally, their impact and symptoms can be managed through appropriate treatment strategies.
To protect children from airborne allergies, the following measures may be helpful:
• Keeping pets out of the house
• Keeping stuffed toys out of the child’s bedroom
• Removing any carpets or rugs in the house
• Keeping windows closed to mitigate pollen-related allergies
• Using encased mattresses and pillows to minimise dust mite allergies
Children and their caregivers must be educated to avoid exposure to identified allergens.
However, if avoiding allergens is not feasible or not effective, doctors might prescribe anti-allergic medications such as antihistamines, inhalers, eye drops and nasal sprays.
In severe cases, the child may need allergy shots, which will help desensitise the child to the allergens.