An estimated 50 million Americans have allergies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These allergies usually show up in infancy or childhood. Allergies can get in the way of your child’s ability to sleep well, play, and function in school. Here’s what to look out for and how to determine if your child’s symptoms may be an allergy.
The prevalence of skin and food allergies in American children jumped between 1997 and 2011, says the CDC. The rate of respiratory allergies, the most common type among children, remained stable during this period. The CDC data show varying prevalence by age, with younger children more likely to have skin allergies and older children more likely to have respiratory allergies. You may see skin symptoms in your little ones, and your older children may tend to hack and wheeze.
In an allergic reaction, your immune system kicks in to defend against what is considered a normal substance for most people, but isn’t for your body. The allergen, or offending substance, can be food, pet dander, or pollen from grasses or trees. It can trigger a host of reactions. Your immune system will react as if it’s fighting off a foreign invader.
Your child may have allergies if they have runny, itchy, red, or swollen eyes that persist for more than a week or two. The same goes for a runny nose. Are the symptoms chronic? Does your child say that their mouth or throat itches or tingles? Do they scratch their ears? The American Academy of Pediatrics says these may be allergy symptoms, possibly of hay fever or allergic rhinitis, the most common form of allergy among children. Note whether the symptoms recur at the same time of year, each year.
The skin, the body’s largest organ and part of the immune system, will sometimes react in protest to an allergen. Check your child’s skin for eczema, which shows up as dry, red, scaly patches that itch. Watch for hives, which may also signal an allergy. These red welts on the skin can range in size. They can be as small as the tip of a pen or as large as a dinner plate, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
Hay fever or other allergies can affect your child’s breathing. If you hear a noisy wheeze when your child breathes or if you notice rapid breathing or shortness of breath, have your child checked by their pediatrician. A dry, hacking cough with clear mucus is another sign of respiratory allergies. Observe your child at play. If they seem to tire easily or more quickly than other children, this may be a sign of allergies.
Allergies can set off intestinal symptoms in children. If your child often complains of stomach cramps or has repeated attacks of diarrhea, this may hint at an allergy. Other signs of allergies in children can include headache or excessive fatigue.
Allergies can also affect your child’s behavior, producing unusually crabby or restless moods. Consider keeping a symptom log to share with your pediatrician, noting the symptom and what happened right before its onset (e.g., exposure to a pet or eating a certain food).
According to the Mayo Clinic, these eight foods contribute to 90 percent of food allergies:
- tree nuts, such as almonds, cashews, and walnuts
- fish, such as bass, cod, and flounder
- shellfish, such as crab, lobster, and shrimp
In addition, some children can’t tolerate citrus fruits. The connection between allergy and allergen isn’t always obvious, so you may have to do some investigating to find the link. Traces of peanut can lurk in cereals, and soy can hide in flavorings or thickeners found in processed or frozen foods.
The presence of household pets, even shorthaired animals that don’t shed, can provoke allergy symptoms in children. It’s not the pet itself that causes allergies, but its dander (dead skin cells), saliva, urine, and fur. If your child sneezes and wheezes after playing with or holding a pet, consider having them tested for animal allergies.
Your pediatrician can help you sort out whether your child’s symptoms are allergy related and can assist you in formulating a management plan. Easing skin, respiratory, or intestinal allergy symptoms may require antihistamines or other medication. You can teach your child strategies to avoid or decrease allergic reactions, including passing up certain foods, playing outdoors when pollen counts are low, and washing hands right after touching a pet.