How allergies happen
Allergies happen when your child reacts to something in the environment. The thing that causes the reaction is called an allergen. It might be something like food, dust mites, pollens, animals, insect stings or bites, or medicines.
Allergens cause your child’s immune system to release histamine and other substances into their body. This leads to allergy symptoms.
Mild to moderate allergic reactions are much more common than severe allergic reactions. Also, deaths from severe allergic reactions are rare. Deaths can happen when there’s a delay in giving life-saving medication to the person having the reaction.
Allergic reactions: how quickly do they happen?
An immediate allergic reaction usually happens within minutes after your child comes into contact with or eats the substance that they’re allergic to, but it can be up to 1-2 hours.
A delayed allergic reaction usually happens many hours after exposure. It can happen up to several days after your child comes into contact with the substance that they’re allergic to.
Mild or moderate allergic reactions: symptoms
If your child is having a mild or moderate allergic reaction, their symptoms might include one or more of the following:
- rash, hives or welts
- swelling of the face, eyes or lips
- tingling or itchy mouth
- eczema, hay fever or asthma – these symptoms might be worse than usual
- stomach pain, vomiting or diarrhoea.
Severe allergic reaction or anaphylaxis: symptoms
A severe allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis. Symptoms might include one or more of the following:
- difficult or noisy breathing
- tongue swelling
- throat swelling or tightness
- difficulty talking or a hoarse voice
- a wheeze or persistent cough
- persistent dizziness or fainting
- paleness and floppiness (in young children)
- severe stomach pain, vomiting or diarrhoea.
Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergic reaction and needs urgent medical attention. If your child is having an anaphylactic reaction, first lay your child flat or keep them sitting. Don’t let your child stand or walk around. Next use an adrenaline injector like EpiPen or Anapen if one is available. Then call an ambulance – phone 000.
Assessment and diagnosis of allergies
If you think your child might have allergies, getting a proper assessment is important.
To start this process, you can talk to your GP, who might refer you to an allergy or immunology specialist for the following tests:
- Skin-prick test: your child’s skin is pricked with a special device that looks a bit like a toothpick and contains a drop of a specific allergen. If a hive comes up where your child’s skin has been pricked, your child might have an allergy.
- Blood tests: the IgE antibody test checks whether your child has a high level of IgE antibodies to a specific allergen. A high level means your child is likely to have an allergy. Your child might have this test if they can’t have skin-prick testing.
Only your GP, allergy and immunology specialist or paediatrician can order and assess allergy tests.
You might hear about IgG food antibody testing, Vega testing, cytotoxic testing, Alcat testing, pulse testing, iridology, kinesiology, VoiceBio analysis and stool or hair analyses. These tests aren’t scientifically proven as allergy tests. Tests that are backed up by science are most likely to work, be safe for your child, and be worth your time, money and energy.
Treatment for mild to moderate allergic reactions
The way you treat an allergic reaction depends on how severe the reaction is.
Giving your child a dose of antihistamine (in tablet or syrup form) is appropriate if your child is having a mild to moderate allergic reaction, including a skin rash, tingling mouth or swelling.
In fact, having some antihistamine syrup in your home first aid kit or in your bag is a good idea – this way it’s handy when you need it. You don’t need a prescription to buy antihistamines in Australia.
It’s best to use antihistamine that won’t make your child sleepy. Your pharmacist or GP can advise you on the most appropriate brand for your child.
Other treatments for allergies
Depending on the kind of allergic reaction your child has, they might need other treatments. For example:
- If your child has eczema, they might need corticosteroid ointments.
- If your child has hay fever, they might need corticosteroid nose sprays.
- If your child has asthma, they might need an inhaler like Ventolin or Asmol.
Your doctor can also give your child an ASCIA (Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy) action plan. The action plan usually includes important information on how to manage allergic reactions and which medications your child should use.
Children who have persistent, troublesome and severe allergies to insect stings or bites, house dust mites and grass pollen might have immunotherapy to reduce their symptoms. Immunotherapy isn’t currently available for food allergies in Australia.
If your child has an allergy, it’s especially important to maintain good control of their asthma. If your child has a severe asthma attack, call an ambulance immediately.
Treatment for anaphylaxis
Children at significant risk of anaphylaxis are often prescribed adrenaline injectors – for example, EpiPen or Anapen.
If your child is prescribed an adrenaline injector, it’s important that both you and your child learn how and when to use it. Your child’s adrenaline injector should be easy to reach at all times. You can also teach family, friends, teachers and carers how to use it.
It’s also a good idea for your child to wear a medical bracelet to let other people know about your child’s particular allergy.
You can give a copy of your child’s allergy action plan to key people like family, carers, babysitters, early childhood educators and teachers.
Allergy risk factors
Children who have family members with allergies or allergy problems like asthma, eczema and hay fever are at increased risk of also developing allergies.