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When it comes to kids, allergies are fairly common. Approximately one in four people has an allergy and around half of those are children, who are more likely to suffer if allergies run in the family.
Allergic reactions are triggered by allergens – things in the environment that are normally harmless, such as food proteins, pollens or dust mites – coming into contact with the skin, stomach, bowel, nose or mouth of the allergic person. This triggers an immune response, causing anything from annoying sniffles and cold-like symptoms to life-threatening anaphylaxis.
“Allergies are really complex, and we do not fully understand them,” explains GP Dr Jill Gamberg. “But a lot of great research is emerging and continuing.”
In Australia, food allergies are estimated to affect 4-8% of children and 10% of infants. The most common triggers for allergies in children, says Jill, include eggs, soy, sesame, wheat, fish and seafood. When it comes to allergies in babies, around 2% of infants have cow’s milk allergy, says Jill, while a peanut allergy affects around 3% of children.
Related: 5 healthy alternatives to cow’s milk
“However, a person who is allergic to peanuts is not always allergic to tree nuts, such as almonds, walnuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamias, pistachios and pecans.”
In a newborn, allergies to food can show up during breastfeeding, as food proteins and other chemicals go through your breastmilk.
Allergic rhinitis, more often known as hay fever, is the most common allergy and affects around 18% of people (both adults and children) in Australia, shares Jill.
“This involves allergies to things in the environment, such as grasses, weeds, trees, pollens, dust mites, animal hair and moulds.”
Hay fever symptoms in babies, kids and adults all look pretty much the same, she adds: “Itchy, runny, congested nose, sneezing and itchy, watery eyes.”
Other common kids’ allergies include bee stings and other insect bites (think: wasps, ants and ticks), certain medications (including some antibiotics and anaesthetics) and latex (rubber – like that used in rubber gloves, for example). Asthma, eczema and hives are also examples of allergies.
Reactions can vary and many are mild, but keep an eye out for these common allergy symptoms in toddlers, babies and children:
Though a lot of child and baby allergy symptoms are not life-threatening, some allergies may cause anaphylaxis – which can be deadly.
“Symptoms of anaphylaxis include difficulty breathing, swelling of the tongue and throat, wheeze, cough, and/or collapse,” Jill explains. “It is an emergency and requires an ambulance and hospital.”
If you think your child is having a severe allergic reaction, seek urgent medical advice.
Peanuts, she adds, are one of the most common foods that cause life-threatening allergic reactions. The most important management is avoidance, and for a person to carry an EpiPen – an autoinjector that delivers a dose of adrenaline to treat very low blood pressure and poor circulation, relax the lungs to aid breathing and reduce swelling, rashes and itching.
If you think your child is having a severe allergic reaction, seek urgent medical advice. If breathing is affected, administer the EpiPen then call triple zero (000) and request an ambulance.
While other allergies are less severe, they may still have long-term effects. “For example, untreated allergic rhinitis in kids can lead to complications including disturbed sleep, tiredness, headaches, poor concentration and recurrent ear infections,” shares Jill. “Allergic rhinitis can also make asthma more difficult to control.”
Luckily, there are precautions parents can take to help with their kid’s allergies.
“Antihistamines can help with symptoms of most types of less severe allergies,” suggests Jill, “and intranasal corticosteroid sprays and salt-water nasal sprays can help with symptoms of hay fever.”
If you know your child suffers from mild allergies, keep antihistamines on hand at all times.
Do not use antihistamines to treat anaphylaxis – adrenaline (in the form of an EpiPen) is the only treatment for this life-threatening reaction.
To manage severe allergies to foods, insects and medications, completely avoiding the allergen is essential, Jill says. Kids with severe allergies need to have strategies in place to minimise their risk of exposure. For example, teach them not to share or swap food, to wash their hands well before eating and to be careful when eating out. Let your child’s friends’ parents know of their allergies, too, and show them how to use your child’s EpiPen if needed.
The good news, says Jill, is that many food allergies in children are not severe and will disappear with time. However, “while children often outgrow cow’s milk, egg, soy and wheat allergies, a few have these for life – and peanut, tree nut, sesame and seafood allergies are usually lifelong and do not go away,” she adds. If you think your child has an allergy, see your doctor for a skin or blood test. “For severe allergies, a referral to a clinical allergy specialist may be required for further assessment including allergy testing,” suggests Dr Jill.
In terms of treatment, “immunotherapy or desensitisation therapy reduces the severity of allergy symptoms and the need for medications to treat allergy,” she adds. “But the treatment period is long – three to five years. There is plenty of research in this space looking for new treatments or possible cures for allergy.”
If your child’s allergy doesn’t go away, all hope is not lost. We’ve compiled a list of revolutionary technologies available now, or currently in development, to help people living with allergies. Check out our article 5 life-changing technologies for food allergies for more.
Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.
Dr Jill Gamberg is a GP and lifestyle medicine physician at a busy practice in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, which has given her a unique insight into the need for balance when it comes to personal wellbeing. Dr Jill, who originally hails from Canada but fell in love with Australia and moved here more than two decades ago, is dedicated to helping people from all walks of life to become healthier by providing accurate health information they can easily integrate into their busy lives. She speaks fluent French, is mum to two daughters and spent much of her adolescence training and competing as a rhythmic gymnast.