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Children and Allergies

When many of us were growing up, allergies seemed uncommon and weren't something we gave much thought to, unless we, or perhaps a sibling, were affected. But as most parents know, times have changed! It often seems that allergies and intolerances have suddenly become commonplace – schools and childcare centres are often nut-free, and products on the grocery shelf often prominently proclaim that they are free of certain allergens. If your child has been diagnosed with an allergy, either to a food, or to something in the environment, you might have lots of questions about what to do next.

Allergies occur when the body overreacts to a substance that is otherwise harmless. The body treats the substance as a threat and releases antibodies which trigger chemicals to ‘protect’ itself. But, it is this protective response that causes the uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous symptoms that we know as an allergic reaction.

Allergy symptoms vary from person to person, and often depend on the allergen. Symptoms can include respiratory symptoms like a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing or wheezing, itchy skin or hives, stomach upset, swelling, or mood changes. For some people who experience allergies, these reactions can be severe and life-threatening. Symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction include difficulty breathing, rapid drop in blood pressure, dizziness, unconsciousness, hives, tightness of the throat, hoarse voice, or light-headedness. And although anaphylactic reactions are rare, they are serious, and require immediate medical attention.

There are eight foods that are considered the most common food allergens, including milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, shellfish, and fish. Other common allergens include airborne substances such as mold, pollen, animal dander, and dust mites, but allergies can be caused by other things as well, like medications and insect stings. There is no certain reason as to why some people have allergies, and others don't, but research has shown that there is a genetic component. This means that if you or your partner have allergies, your children are more likely to have them. However, that doesn't mean that they will be allergic to the same things. It simply means that they are more likely to have some sort of allergy.

Diagnosing allergies can sometimes take time. Often, parents or other people in the child's life may notice symptoms, or it may seem like your child always seems to have a lingering cold. If you notice that your child has allergy symptoms, like wheezing or frequent rashes, your family physician or pediatrician may recommend allergy tests. This usually involves a skin prick test, in which a small amount of the allergen is either injected or ‘pricked’ into the skin to test for sensitivity. Some children may also need to have a blood test for allergies, if there is concern about a severe reaction.

Many parents also wonder why allergies seem so much more common today than they did even ten or fifteen years ago. At present, researchers are working to understand this, and there are several ideas as to why this might be, but there are no definite answers yet. Unfortunately, there are also no cures for allergies. Right now, the best thing that parents can do is to take steps to help their children understand their allergies, based on their ages and abilities, and do what they can to avoid the allergy triggers. This might mean avoiding food triggers, working with your child's school or childcare centre to come up with a plan, or by changing routines at home. Or, if environmental allergens are a concern, it may mean avoiding carpeting or rugs in the home, or keeping the windows closed when there is more pollen in the air. Your child's doctor will help guide you as to how you can help your child best.

Learn more about children and allergies:

Anaphylaxis Canada: Newly Diagnosed Support Centre – If your child was recently diagnosed with a serious or life threatening food allergy, you may be interested in this page from Anaphylaxis Canada. It provides information for school, play dates, and home life, as well as tips for parents coping with the fear and frustration of the unknown.

Canadian Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology Foundation: Public Information – This site offers a variety of informational pages on common allergy related concerns, including information on asthma, anaphylaxis, and common allergens.

HealthLinkBC: Eczema and Food Allergy in Babies and Young Children – If your little one is experiencing eczema, you probably want to do whatever you can to relieve the itchy rash. Perhaps you are also wondering if food allergies are the cause. This article offers excellent information on both eczema and food allergies for parents and caregivers.

Healthy Canadians: Food Allergies and Intolerances – More information about kids and food allergies, including risks and symptoms, from the Government of Canada.

KidsHealth: All About Allergies – Detailed and comprehensive information about allergies, including the most common allergens, risk factors, and treatments, from KidsHealth.

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