What is an allergy?

An allergy is an abnormal reaction to an otherwise harmless substance that causes an allergic reaction. While allergies can occur in adulthood, most of us get them for the first time in childhood. Family history plays a role. If one or both parents has an allergy the chance that your child may have an allergy increases.

Common allergy triggers

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The substance that triggers an allergic reaction is called an allergen. These include:

  • Animal dander – tiny specks of shed animal skin
  • Pollen from trees, flowers, grass and weeds
  • Dust mites, which are tiny insects commonly found in pillows, mattresses, carpets and upholstered furniture
  • Mould – fungi found indoors and outdoors
  • Certain foods, medicines and chemicals
  • Venom from insect bites

Allergies can occur anytime and anywhere. An allergic reaction results from contact with an allergen such as landing on the skin or eye, inhaling it, swallowing it, or by injection. Some allergies are seasonal for example when pollen counts are high (seasonal hay fever). Other allergies such as those triggered by animal dander can occur all year round. They can also occur indoors and outdoors.

Allergies and the immune system

Our immune system plays an important role in fighting infection and keeping us healthy. It reacts to harmful invaders such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites by attacking them. Sometimes the immune system overeagerly responds to a perceived threat from something that is usually harmless. It releases chemicals, such as histamine to fight off the ‘invader’, which results in an allergic reaction with symptoms that can range from mildly uncomfortable to life-threatening.

Symptoms: What to look out for

An allergic reaction takes place within minutes of exposure to an allergen and can affect any part of the body, but symptoms mostly show up on the skin, nose, eyes and lungs. Notably, sneezing, itching, runny nose, watery eyes, swelling and nasal congestion could mean that your child has a cold, but it could also mean that they have an allergy.

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Common allergic symptoms

Early phase response of exposure to an allergen may include:

  • Blocked or runny nose and sneezing
  • Red, watery and itchy eyes
  • Coughing and / or difficulty breathing
  • Itchy skin with or without a skin rash
  • Ear discomfort

Later phase response of exposure to an allergen within a 4 to 6-hour time period may include inflammation whereby tissues become red and swollen.

Allergic reactions of the skin and nose

All children are affected by skin irritations and nasal congestion at some point and there are various causes. However, when an allergen triggers an immune response, it results in an allergy.

Skin allergies

Allergic skin conditions include rashes, itchy patches (urticaria / hives), insect bites or stings and eczema.

Insect bites or stings

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Identifiable by the redness and swelling around the sting area, which for most people goes away after a while, insect bites or stings are mostly caused by bees and wasps. Some people have almost no reaction while others have an extreme allergic reaction (anaphylactic shock), which can be life-threatening.

Eczema (atopic dermatitis)

Atopic dermatitis is the most common form of eczema and is mostly caused by outdoor allergens such as grass. ‘Atopic’ refers to the hereditary tendency to develop something although eczema may skip a generation. Showing up as itchy, dry patches it can affect the entire skin or specific areas only such as arms, legs, face or neck, and the area affected may become infected. Occurring mainly in children and often improving with age, approximately 40% of the children with this type of eczema are cleared of the condition eventually.

Nasal allergies

Allergies caused by inhaling allergens such as animal dander, pollen and dust mites lead to nasal congestion, nasal discharge, sneezing and inflammation.

Allergic rhinitis

When caused by an allergy the inflammation of the naval cavity is called allergic rhinitis. There are two types of allergic rhinitis. Perennial allergic rhinitis occurs year-round while the seasonal kind occurs at the time of year when plants, flowers and trees pollinate.

Commonly known as ‘hay fever’, allergic rhinitis (nasal allergy) is not triggered by hay and does not result in a fever.

Allergic rhinitis causes the nose to become blocked, which in turn blocks the sinuses – the cavities located near the eyes behind the nose. Various conditions can cause sinusitis, including the common cold but when the nasal and sinus cavities become inflamed due to allergy it is called rhinosinusitis. In other words, allergic rhinitis can lead to sinusitis.

Allergy diagnosis and treatment

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To identify if your child has an allergy and to determine the treatment required, consult your doctor. He or she will likely ask questions about your child’s symptoms and habits and may suggest skin or blood tests. While there is no guaranteed cure for allergic reactions the symptoms can be:

  • Prevented to a certain extent by reducing exposure to allergens
  • Managed or modulated with treatments that adjust the immune system’s response to perceived ‘invaders’

Steps to reduce exposure to allergens

Help your child to avoid exposure to triggers by allergy-proofing your child’s environment and encouraging behavioural changes as follows:

  • When pollen counts are high encourage them to stay indoors as much as possible and keep windows closed
  • Make use of air conditioning
  • Invest in bed linen and sprays that combat the presence of bed and dust mites
  • Ensure all the living spaces in your home are free of mould
  • Wash hands after handling or petting animals

Treatment options

Allergies can make the simplest activities difficult for your child so it is important to get the best symptom control possible.

  • Antihistamines – rather than stopping histamine production, which is an important part of your child’s defensive system, antihistamine syrup, which is ingested orally can help to block the effects of histamine
  • Decongestants come in the form of tablets or sprays and help clear nasal congestion for easier breathing
  • Eye drops and nasal sprays help relive itchiness
  • Corticosteroids taken orally or as a nasal spray help reduce inflammation throughout the body
  • Leukotrine antagonists help release inflammation in the airways
  • Immunotherapy desensitises the immune system to allergens and is used for severe allergies that cannot be relieved by other methods of treatment
Child Allergies

Make outside their happy place

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