Non-food allergies

Many children are allergic to ordinary things in our homes and environment, like house dust mites, insect stings and bites, pets, grasses, weeds and pollens. Some children are also allergic to less common things like medications or latex (rubber products).

If you think your child might have allergies, talk to your GP. Your GP might refer you to an allergy and immunology specialist, who can assess your child.

Children might have reactions to some food additives and chemicals used to make different products, like carpet glue, dyes and solvents. These aren’t allergies, and they usually don’t result in severe reactions.

Mild or moderate allergic reactions

Symptoms of a mild or moderate allergic reaction usually include one or more of the following:

  • rash, hives or welts
  • swelling of the face, eyes or lips
  • tingling mouth
  • eczema, hay fever or asthma symptoms – these symptoms might be worse than usual

Note that if your child has diarrhoea, stomach pain or vomiting after an insect sting, it means he’s having a severe allergic reaction.

What to do about mild to moderate reactions
If you think your child is having a mild to moderate allergic reaction, you can give your child a dose of antihistamine.

In fact, having an antihistamine in your home’s first aid kit is a good idea. It’s also a good idea to use a less sedating antihistamine so it won’t make your child sleepy. Syrup is a good alternative if your child can’t swallow or doesn’t like tablets.

Mild and moderate allergic reactions are common, but deaths from allergic reactions are rare. Deaths can happen when there’s a delay in giving life-saving medication to the person having the reaction.

Severe allergic reaction or anaphylaxis

A severe allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis. Symptoms might include one or more of the following:

  • difficult or noisy breathing
  • tongue and throat swelling or tightness
  • trouble talking or a hoarse voice
  • a wheeze or persistent cough
  • persistent dizziness or fainting
  • paleness and floppiness (for young children)
  • low blood pressure.
Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergic reaction and needs urgent medical attention. If your child is having an anaphylactic reaction, first lay her flat to help keep her blood pressure stable. Next use an adrenaline auto-injector like EpiPen® if one is available. Then call an ambulance – phone 000.

Medication allergies

Your child might develop a rash or swelling when taking prescription medications like antibiotics. This might be because he has an allergy to the medication. But sometimes rashes and swelling might be caused by an underlying infection and not allergies.

If your child has diarrhoea or vomiting after taking medication, it’s probably not an allergic reaction. It’s more likely to be caused by illness or the effect of the medications on healthy bacteria in the gut.

Reactions to vaccinations at the site where they’re injected are common and usually include pain and swelling. Your child might also get a mild fever. True allergic reactions to vaccines are very rare.

If your child has a reaction to a medication, it’s best to talk to your GP.

Dust mite allergy

Dust mites live in almost every Australian home. They’re tiny bugs that eat flakes of skin and mould. They live in warm, moist places like mattresses, pillows, soft toys, soft furnishings and carpet.

The usual symptoms of dust mite allergy include hay fever, eczema and asthma. Also, if your child’s nose gets blocked, she might snore. Dust mite allergy usually doesn’t cause hives.

Dust mite allergies aren’t seasonal – they happen throughout the year.

Treatment
You can’t get rid of all of the dust mites in your home, but you can reduce their numbers and get rid of the allergens they produce. It’s best to focus on your child’s bed and bedroom, where you can reduce dust mites by:

  • covering your child’s bed with a dust mite cover, which will keep dust mites away from your child when he’s sleeping
  • washing sheets and pillow cases every week in water hotter than 55°C
  • washing blankets, doonas and dust mite covers every two months in hot water
  • removing all soft toys from the bedroom, or washing them weekly in eucalyptus oil.

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 using kitchen and bathroom exhaust fans and keeping windows open
  • trying not to have carpets in your home where possible
  • trying not to cover furniture with cloth – for example, avoid draping rugs and throws over a couch.

Pet allergies

Children can become allergic to the hair, dander and saliva of animals like cats, dogs, horses and rabbits.

Allergies to animals usually cause symptoms in the skin, nose or eyes from contact with the animal dander. These allergies are most likely to cause itchy skin, hives, an itchy, runny nose, and itchy eyes. They can also make your child’s hay fever or asthma worse.

Treatment
Your child might be OK with her own pet, but have a reaction to other people’s pets. In this case, you could give her a dose of antihistamine (one that won’t make her sleepy) about 30 minutes before you visit a house where you know there’s an animal that your child reacts to. Your child should also avoid touching the animal she reacts to. This will usually be enough to keep symptoms under control.

Changing your child’s clothes as soon as you get home and getting him into the shower might stop the allergen getting into your house.

If your family pet is the problem, the best way for your child to avoid contact is to keep the animal outside. Don’t let the animal sleep on your child’s bed.

Allergies to grasses, weeds and pollens

Allergies to pollens, grasses and weeds are common. These allergies usually cause 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.

These allergies tend to be worse in the spring and summer months, when grasses and other plants are actively growing.

Prevention
The best way to treat your child’s symptoms is to reduce her exposure to grasses, weeds and pollens by:

  • getting her to wear long sleeves and long trousers when she’s sitting on or playing in grass, if grass is the problem
  • 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.

Latex allergy

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. They must avoid using latex products around him.

Some people have an anaphylactic reaction to latex. If your child experiences any of the signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis, lay her flat, give her an adrenaline auto-injector (if available) and call an ambulance – phone 000.

Insect allergies

Insect stings and 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 around the sting. In some children, though, the reaction can be worse.

In Australia, your child is most likely to experience stings from bees, wasps and 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, welts or hives after insect bites. Swelling can sometimes increase for a couple of days.

A very small number of children have anaphylaxis after insect stings or bites.

Treatment
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 him sleepy) if the area is very itchy
  • giving your child paracetamol or ibuprofen in recommended doses if the area is painful.

If your child has symptoms of anaphylaxis, lay her flat, give her an adrenaline auto-injector (if available) and call an ambulance – phone 000.

Your allergist or immunologist might also discuss the benefits of allergen immunotherapy with you if your child is at risk of anaphylaxis from the stings of insects or ants. This treatment takes 3-5 years to work but is usually very effective.

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.

Prevention
Prevent insect stings and bites to your child by:

  • getting him to wear shoes, long sleeves and pants when he’s outside (light-coloured clothing is less attractive to bees and wasps), and gloves if he’s 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 you’re outside because wasps and bees can crawl inside.

Chemical allergies and intolerances

Chemicals in common items like metal jewellery, clothing dye, adhesive dressings and glues can cause allergic reactions of the skin. This is called contact dermatitis. Your child might also react to creams, ointments or sunscreen used on her skin. These reactions are usually not life-threatening.

If your family has a history of sensitive skin, you could try using hypoallergenic products on your child’s skin. Trying products on a small area of skin first is 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.