Allergies in Children — Four Things to Bear in Mind

Published on: April 09, 2021

Parents often rely on pediatricians to make the final call when identifying and treating allergies in children.  Nonetheless here are a few pointers to keep in mind that could help you understand your child’s conditions better.

By The Children’s Center at Bumrungrad International Hospital

Raising a child gives parents first-hand experience with health and medical issues. One of the more prevalent challenges for many parents is figuring out if a child’s particular symptoms are a sign of illness or an allergy.

While a child’s pediatrician is best able to make a proper diagnosis and provide advice on treatment options, having a basic understanding of allergies can help parents determine the source of a child’s allergy and recognize the symptoms of a severe reaction requiring urgent medical care. Here are four things parents should know about children and allergies.

1. Family history plays a role

While it is still unclear why allergies occur, family history is known to be a factor. If either or both parents have allergies, their child has a higher risk for developing an allergy, though not necessarily to the same allergen. When there is a family history of anaphylaxis— a severe reaction usually caused by a food allergy or bee sting— babies should be screened for those types of triggers. Breast-feeding for the initial six months following birth has been shown to lessen a child’s risk of future allergies.

2. Common cold and allergy symptoms are very similar

Many allergies such as asthma and hay fever produce symptoms in children (sneezing, itching, persistent coughing, runny nose, nasal congestion, and sinus pressure) that fit the symptom profile of the common cold, sinusitis, and irritation of the nose (called non-allergic rhinitis).

One sign parents can look for is to check the child’s mucus. Clear, watery-like mucus indicates an allergy as the cause. Yellow mucus with a gel-type consistency points toward a viral or bacterial infection. Colored, unclear mucus does not automatically mean your child is sick; it may just be normal mucus working as intended to filter out airborne dirt and dust before it can enter the lungs. It is  also always a good idea to consult your pediatrician if your child has respiratory symptoms such as wheezing that do not quickly improve.

3. Reactions to food are different for allergy, intolerance, and poisoning

  • In the case of food intolerance, the response is usually from the digestive system, not the immune system. Hence a child is able to consume some of the food and experience symptoms as the food makes its way through the digestive tract.
  • The onset of symptoms of food poisoning may take up to five or six hours after ingestion.
  • With a food allergy, ingesting the allergen produces a swift response from the immune system with symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, respiratory problems, skin rashes, or anaphylaxis. Food allergy reactions can range from mild to severe, and reactions to a specific allergen can vary over time, e.g. a food allergy that produced a mild reaction previously has the potential to cause anaphylaxis after exposure in the future.

4. Opinions are evolving on the “avoidance vs. exposure” issue

There has been a long-running debate within the medical community and among parents on whether exposing children to allergens— a process called ‘desensitization’— is a more effective approach than the conventional “avoid allergens” thinking.

While there are strong voices on both sides, it is fair to say that mainstream thinking has shifted in the direction of exposure, with support for using desensitization for allergy prevention (beginning a few months after birth) and to reverse an existing allergy in children as well as adults with oral immunotherapy— giving tiny amounts of the allergen to eat and digest, then gradually increasing the amount each time.

For parents and expectant mothers, be sure to talk to your doctor about possible side effects and safety issues. There are a variety of desensitization treatments and it is recommended that these procedures be done in a doctor’s office that is properly equipped to deal with risks and side effects.  

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