Many children are allergic to ordinary things in our homes and environment, such as house dust mites, insect stings and bites, pets, grasses, weeds and pollens. Some children are also allergic to less common things such as medications or latex (rubber products).
Children might also show intolerances to some chemicals used to make different products (carpet glue, dyes and solvents). These usually don’t cause a severe reaction, and children don’t develop allergy antibodies.
Mild to moderate allergic reactions
If the allergic reaction is mild or moderate, your child’s symptoms will usually include one or more of the following:
- rash, hives or welts
- swelling of the face, eyes or lips
- tingling mouth
- abdominal pain or vomiting (if this happens after an insect sting, it means your child is having a severe allergic reaction).
Severe allergic reactions
If the reaction is severe (‘anaphylaxis’), your child might have any one of the following signs or symptoms:
- difficult or noisy breathing
- swelling of the tongue
- swelling or tightness in the throat
- trouble talking and/or a hoarse voice
- a wheeze or persistent cough
- persistent dizziness or collapse
asthma, eczema (also known as atopic dermatitis) and hay fever symptoms – these symptoms might be worse than usual.
Young children might go pale and floppy.
Severe non-food allergic reactions can occur with medications, latex and insect stings.
Having an antihistamine in your home’s first aid kit is a good idea – this way, it’s handy when you need it. It’s a good idea to use one that won’t make your child sleepy (‘non-sedating’). Syrup is a good alternative if your child can’t swallow or doesn’t like tablets.
Dust mite allergy
Dust mites are found in almost every Australian home. They’re tiny bugs that eat flakes of skin and mould. They live in warm, moist places, such as mattresses, pillows, soft toys, soft furnishings and carpet.
The usual symptoms of dust mite allergy include hay fever – sneezing, itchy eyes, eczema, blocked or runny nose and asthma. If your child’s nose gets blocked, he might snore. Dust mite allergy usually doesn’t cause hives.
Dust mite allergies aren’t seasonal – they occur throughout the year.
You can do lots of things to reduce your child’s exposure to dust mites. The most important place to focus is your child’s bed, by:
- covering your child’s bed with a dust mite cover, which will keep dust mites away from your child when she’s sleeping.
- washing sheets and pillow cases every week in water hotter than 55°C.
Other things you can do include:
- removing clutter and keeping your home as clean as possible
- vacuuming carpets frequently using a good vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter
- keeping humidity levels down in your home (think about ventilation in your home – are the kitchen and bathroom exhaust fans working properly, and is there a window you can keep open some of the time?)
- trying not to have carpets in your home where possible
- trying not to cover furniture with cloth (for example, draping rugs and throws over a couch), which can give dust mites a place to breed.
Children can become allergic to the hair, dander and saliva of animals such as cats, dogs, horses and rabbits.
Allergy to animals usually causes symptoms in the skin, nose or eyes, from contact with the animal dander. This type of allergy is most likely to cause itchy skin, hives and an itchy, runny nose and eyes. It can also make your child’s eczema or asthma worse.
Your child might be OK with his own pet, but have a reaction to other people’s pets. In this case, you could give him a dose of antihistamine (one that won’t make him sleepy) about 30 minutes before you visit a house where you know there’s an animal that your child reacts to. Changing your child’s clothes as soon as you get home and getting him into the shower might help prevent him bringing the allergen into your house.
Your child should avoid touching the animal she reacts to. This will usually be enough to keep symptoms under control.
If your family pet is the problem, the best way for your child to avoid contact is to keep the animal outside. Don’t allow the animal to sleep on your child’s bed.
Allergy to grasses, weeds and pollens
Allergy to pollens, grasses and weeds is common. It usually causes hay fever symptoms, which sometimes include runny, itchy eyes and nose. Some children can develop skin rashes after touching grass, or their eczema might get worse.
This type of allergy tends to be worse in the spring and summer months, when grasses and other plants are actively growing.
Your child can reduce exposure to grasses, weeds and pollens by:
- wearing long sleeves and long trousers when sitting on or playing in grass (if she usually develops a skin rash when his skin comes into contact with grass)
- having a bath or shower after playing outside, especially if she feels itchy
- staying inside on windy days
- keeping windows and doors shut and staying inside when the grass is being mowed.
Your child might have an allergic reaction to prescription medications. The allergy could also be to medications you can buy without a prescription from the pharmacy, supermarket or health food shop.
If your child has hives or swelling after taking the first 1-2 doses of a particular medication, he might have an allergy to that medication. Talk to your family doctor about the reaction immediately. If your child has any trouble breathing, call an ambulance to take him to hospital.
What’s not a medication allergy
Reactions such as diarrhoea or vomiting are more likely to be caused by illness or the effect that certain medications (for example, antibiotics) have on healthy bacteria in the gut. If your child is taking antibiotics and gets diarrhoea, giving her a probiotic or live-culture yoghurt might help. If the diarrhoea has blood in it, you should consult a doctor.
Localised reactions to vaccinations are common and usually include pain, swelling at the injection site and mild fever. True allergic reactions to vaccines are very rare.
A latex allergy could be the problem if your child develops redness, a rash or swelling after contact with a product that contains latex. This could be balloons, rubber gloves, baby bottle teats or dummies.
If your child has a latex allergy, you’ll need to tell all medical, dental and other health care professionals who see your child. This means they must avoid using latex products around her.
Some people have severe reactions (‘anaphylaxis’) to latex. If your child experiences any of the signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis, call an ambulance to take your child to hospital.
Insect stings (and in some areas, bites – for example, tick bites) are common, especially if your child spends a lot of time outdoors. An insect sting or bite usually causes only temporary pain and redness at the site of the sting. In some children, though, the reaction can be worse.
In Australia, your child is most likely to experience stings from bees, wasps, stinging ants and bites from ticks. Bites from mosquitoes and march flies are also very common (but severe reactions to these are very rare).
The usual symptoms of an insect sting are sharp, stinging pain at the bite or sting site, and a white mark surrounded by a small red swollen area. The pain usually disappears within a few hours.
Reactions to insect bites and stings
Different children get different amounts of swelling after insect bites. About 10% of children will have more swelling, welts or hives than other children because of a sting. Swelling can sometimes increase for a couple of days.
Approximately 1% of children have a severe allergic reaction after an insect sting or bite. If this happens, you’ll need to go to the hospital.
Insect stings can be treated by:
- removing the sting if it’s still in the skin (flick out the sting if possible – grabbing it can squeeze extra venom into the sting site)
- washing the sting or bite site
- applying a cold pack to the sting or bite site
- giving your child a dose of an antihistamine (one that won’t make her sleepy) if the area is very itchy.
For severe allergic reactions, give an adrenaline autoinjector (if available) and seek urgent medical attention.
With tick bites, disturbing the tick can lead to the injection of allergen and trigger an allergic reaction. If your child is at risk of anaphylaxis from tick bites seek urgent medical attention. Do not attempt to remove the tick yourself.
Prevent insect stings and bites to your child by:
- covering him up with clothing – wear shoes, long sleeves and pants when outside (light-coloured clothing is less attractive to bees and wasps), and gloves if gardening
- being aware of areas where insects are very active (for example, near beehives or around swimming pools)
- having insect nests removed by professionals
- not leaving canned drinks uncovered when outside.
You might like to read more about different insect bites and stings.
Chemical allergies and intolerances
Chemicals in common items such as metal jewellery, clothing dye, adhesive dressings and glues can cause allergic reactions of the skin called contact dermatitis. Your child might also react to creams, ointments or sunscreen used on his skin. These reactions are usually not life-threatening and don’t involve allergy antibodies.
If your family has a history of sensitive skin, you could try using ‘hypoallergenic’ products on your child’s skin. Trying any creams on a small area of skin first is also a good idea.
Keep your house as ‘smell free’ as possible by minimising the use of perfumed cleaning products or air fresheners. These can irritate your child’s skin and nose.