Children suffer with allergies in many of the same ways adults do, although since they are often less verbal, particularly when they are very young, they may not be able to describe their symptoms as accurately. Children may simply present as fussy, irritable or angry when suffering pain or discomfort they can't describe. Parents and other caregivers should be aware that children suffering from ear, nose and throat allergies are much more likely than adults to develop ear infections because of anatomical differences in the structure of their ears.
Allergies are not present at birth, but certain children are predisposed by hereditary factors to develop them. As children are exposed to particular allergens, such as pollen, mold, pet dander, specific foods or medications, they may reach a threshold and develop allergic reactions. Allergies are an abnormal reaction of the immune system to normally harmless substances. When a susceptible child is exposed to an allergen, the body releases a variety of chemicals, including histamine. Histamine is the precipitating cause of the allergic reaction.
As in adults, symptoms of allergies in children are varied. They may be allergic to substances that are inhaled, that come into contact with the skin, or that are ingested as food or medication. Children, like adults, may also have severe allergic reactions to the bites or stings of insects or other creatures. Symptoms of pediatric allergies may include:
- Chronic cold-like symptoms, particularly during certain seasons
- Itchy or watery eyes
- Asthmatic coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, difficulty breathing
- Rashes or itchy patches on the skin, eczema, hives
- Repeated gagging, vomiting or abdominal pain
- Itchy sensations in the mouth, throat or ears
Anaphylaxis, the most severe allergic reaction, occurs in a child or adult after the body has already been exposed to the allergen at least once before. Anaphylaxis is a systemic, life-threatening allergic reaction and must always be treated as an emergency. When a child is in danger of this type of systemic reaction, most often to a bee sting, food or medication, an epinephrine autoinjector must be carried by the child or caregiver at all times.
Apart from observation and physical examination by a physician, allergies are diagnosed by various allergy tests, the skin test being the most common. During a skin patch test, the physician applies various potential allergens to the skin, usually of the arm and then scratches the skin so that the substance enters the bloodstream. The child is examined after a certain period of time to see if there is any reaction, mild to severe, on the skin where the allergen has been applied.
There are many allergens in the household or outdoor environment that can cause allergic reactions in sensitive children. Among these are the following:
- Dust mites
- Fur-covered animals
- Insect bites or stings
- Pests, like cockroaches or mice
- Molds and fungi, including microscopic ones
Foods, commonly cow's milk, eggs, nuts, soy, wheat and shellfish are also common allergens.
Treatment of Pediatric Allergies
No way has yet been discovered to prevent allergies, so the best help for children with allergies is to avoid contact with allergens wherever possible. This may mean strict avoidance of certain foods, medications, perfumes, detergents, or plants. Treatments for allergy symptoms once they occur may include:
- Corticosteroids administered as nasal drops or cream
- Allergy shots to desensitize the child to the allergen
As previously mentioned, once a child suffers, or has previously suffered, an anaphylactic allergic reaction, it is essential that an epinephrine autoinjector be kept available at all times.