If your child has a seasonal or food allergy, he is not alone. The occurrence of seasonal, food, and skin allergies has increased greatly over the past decade. The reason for the rise has not been determined, but some allergists speculate that we are simply too clean.
Known as the “hygiene hypothesis,” the theory suggests that our increased use of hand sanitizers and detergents and spending too little time around animals means that children are not exposed to as much bacteria and microorganisms that their immune systems would otherwise learn to fight off.
One recent study has shown that children who lived on farms at a very young age had a reduced incidence of asthma. And another study in Sweden indicated that children in families that were more likely to wash their dishes by hand rather than using a dishwasher were significantly less likely to develop eczema and somewhat less likely to develop allergic asthma and hay fever.
Regardless of the reason, Laura Dziadzio, M.D., Carilion Clinic's pediatric allergist and immunologist, said that there are still no cures for today’s allergies.
“The key to relief is identifying the allergy and treating the symptoms,” she said. “The sooner you can identify your child’s allergy, the sooner you can improve his quality of life!”
What Is an Allergy?
An allergy is an overreaction of the immune system to a substance. This substance is usually harmless to most people, but for people with allergies their immune system switches to attack mode, resulting in symptoms that can range from simply annoying to serious or even life threatening. Dr. Dziadzio noted that some of the most common allergens include:
- Pollen from trees, grass and weeds
- Molds and fungus
- Dust mites in bedding, upholstered furniture and carpet
- Pests such as cockroaches, mice and rats
- Pets with fur, including dogs, cats, guinea pigs, gerbils, rabbits, etc.
- Foods such as cow's milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish
Signs and Symptoms
Allergy symptoms in children can vary and can often mimic colds, but Dr. Dziadzio said that there are certain signs that parents can look for in order to diagnose a recurring allergy.
1. Chronic, cold-like symptoms that last more than a week or two and develop about the same time each year could signal a seasonal allergy. Symptoms can include an itchy, runny nose; nasal stuffiness; sneezing; throat clearing; and itchy, watery eyes.
2. If your child has a food allergy, symptoms will occur repeatedly after eating a particular food. Common symptoms include hives; swelling of face or extremities; gagging, coughing, or wheezing; vomiting; or significant abdominal pain.
3. Signs of a skin allergy, which is more common in people with allergies, can include repeated red, itchy, dry, sometimes scaly rashes in the creases of the elbows and/or knees, or on the back of the neck, buttocks, wrists or ankles.
4. Signs of asthma include persistent coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, difficulty breathing and other respiratory symptoms. Asthma symptoms also tend to increase with exercise and/or at night.
Today, there are several treatment options for children. Again there is no cure, but treating the symptoms can make all of the difference. In her practice, Dr. Dziadzio explained that she and her staff will work with each individual child and her family to discuss the best solution, ranging from tips on what they can do around the home to decrease allergen exposure, as well as find a treatment that works for everyone.
“If a child is allergic to the family pet, there are some medications that can be quite helpful and we try to come up with solutions so the family can keep the pet,” she said. “And for seasonal allergies, we want kids to be able to get outside and enjoy the weather so we often prescribe nasal steroids, eye drops or antihistamines first. In our practice, we always try other options before resorting to allergy shots since no child likes getting shots and it is not the most convenient option for busy families.”
However, Dr. Dziadzio noted that there is a new drug—sublingual immunotherapy—that she has been prescribing in lieu of allergy shots. Instead of an injection, the child is given a pill that dissolves under the tongue. Although currently only approved by the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) to treat grass pollen for ages 5 and up and ragweed for 18 and older, Dr. Dziadzio said that this new therapy is a very promising avenue that is less painful and much more convenient for her patients.
If your child is suffering from seasonal allergies, talk to your pediatrician or see an allergist right away. While there are no cures, relief is possible.