As adults, most of us are aware of our own allergies. When it comes to our children, however, it can be difficult to know what to look out for — especially when they are very young and are regularly exposed to new foods, products and environments.
We all come into contact with lots of substances throughout the day — from the different foods that we eat through to particles floating around in the air that we breathe. An allergic reaction is when our immune system reacts to a substance that isn’t considered typically harmful to most people. While allergies can develop at any point throughout our lives, many people experience allergies in early childhood.
An allergic reaction can be slightly different for each of us, which can make it challenging to identify allergies in children. What makes it even more difficult is that children, especially babies and toddlers, aren’t able to tell you how they are feeling. Even older children may have difficulty finding the words to accurately describe their symptoms.
Don’t lose hope — there are a few ways to figure out whether your child has an allergy. A good place to start is to consider the type of allergen that your child has come into contact with, and the symptoms that they are experiencing.
According to the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, food allergy occurs in around 2-4% of adults and 5-10% of children in Australia and New Zealand. While almost any food can cause an allergic reaction, there are certain foods which tend to be more common triggers, including dairy (especially cow’s milk), eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, sesame, wheat, soy, and seafood. Sometimes children grow out of their food allergies (particularly cow’s milk, eggs, soy, and wheat) while others (like tree nuts, peanuts, sesame and seafood) tend to be more likely to stick around into adulthood.
Food allergies can be triggered by very small amounts of a particular food and can develop very fast or over a period of an hour or more. Symptoms of a food allergy can include:
Irritated, itchy and watery eyes
A blocked or runny nose
Stomach cramps or diarrhoea
Wheezing or difficulty breathing
A red, itchy rash or bumps on the skin
Swelling of the face, tongue and lips
Did you know that allergies to stinging insect venoms (including bees, wasps and Jack Jumper ants) are the most common cause of severe allergic reactions in Australia? Most of us have experienced a bee sting, wasp sting or ant bite and felt some itching, redness or swelling. However, they are a common cause of anaphylaxis, which can include any of the following symptoms:
Difficulty swallowing or talking
Wheezing or difficulty breathing
An instant rash
Swelling of the tongue, mouth or throat
Hot flushes, nausea or vomiting
Feeling weak, collapsing or feeling unconscious
Ticks can also cause allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis. These arachnids are mostly found on the east coast of Australia from July to December. They need to be treated with care, otherwise, they may release more allergen-containing saliva which can make things worse. If your child has been stung by a tick, it’s best to either freeze the tick and allow it to drop off, or leave it in place and seek medical assistance urgently.
Typically, people aren’t allergic to the plants themselves, but the pollen that the plant produces, especially from grasses, weeds and trees. Pollen can trigger something called allergic rhinitis, which most of us know as hayfever.
People with hayfever experience symptoms like:
A stuffy or runny nose
Itchy or watery eyes
In addition to hayfever, people with an allergy to pollen may also be prone to something called thunderstorm asthma. This occurs when there’s a rise in humidity and air pressure which causes grains of pollen to burst, releasing tiny particles that can be breathed into the lungs. Springtime can be a particularly challenging period for children who have a pollen allergy.
Some people also develop a rash, irritated skin or eczema when they come into contact with grass or scratchy plants. This is especially common for babies and young children, who have very sensitive skin.
Medicines and latex
While not as common as fish or insects, medicines such as antibiotics, anaesthetics and latex can be a trigger for allergy symptoms.
Some mild symptoms may present up to 24 hours after taking the medication. However, symptoms which are more severe usually present within an hour of taking the antibiotic, and may include:
Swelling of the tongue, throat or face
Difficulty breathing (see anaphylaxis)
Fever or flu-like syptoms
Latex can be found in children’s products like dummies, bottles, teething toys, nappies, bandaids, balloons and even school supplies. A latex allergy can be triggered by immediate contact with a latex product (for example, being touched by someone wearing latex gloves or blowing up a balloon) or by breathing in latex particles.
Symptoms may include:
It is essential that your pharmacist, GP and other health care professionals are aware of your allergies and it is likely that they will continue to ask. Allergy severity can change with time, so your medical records need to be kept up to date.
In some cases, children may experience a very severe kind of allergy called anaphylaxis, which requires an injection of adrenaline called epinephrine. These children are required to carry an EpiPen which can be injected in the event of a severe allergic reaction.
If your child experiences any of the extreme symptoms listed above, including difficulty breathing, swelling of the tongue, mouth or face, fainting or loss of consciousness, call 000 immediately.
As you can see, many of the triggers for allergies present with similar symptoms. This can make it very difficult to pinpoint exactly what your child is allergic to. One of the best ways to establish whether your child has an allergy and if so, what they are allergic to, is to have them tested by a specialist.
These tests are either skin prick tests, blood tests or occasionally oral tests which measure something called Immunoglobulin E antibodies. In order to reach a clear conclusion, however, you’ll also need to make sure that you’re keeping a log of your child’s symptoms which tracks what they have been exposed to and the kind of symptoms that they are experiencing. This log, in conjunction with the test results, can help you to get a clear understanding of your child’s allergy. Your doctor can then recommend a plan for treatment and prevention depending on the triggers and severity of the allergy.
Whether your child requires a topical treatment like a cream or ointment, oral medication or an EpiPen, your local Capital Chemist can provide you with the right treatment for your child’s allergy.
For more information on allergies in babies and young children, visit Nip Allergies in the Bub.