Lindsey McManus from the leading national medical charity, Allergy UK, explains why children can develop allergy and what you can do if you think your child is displaying allergic symptoms.
At Allergy UK we get many calls to our helpline from parents needing advice on their child's allergy. With 50% of children in the UK now suffering from some kind of allergic disease1 it's hardly surprising that parents have such concerns.
Allergies can take many forms in babies and young children; some families are genetically pre-disposed to developing allergy, if a parent or sibling has an allergy there is a much higher risk that the child will also go on to develop an allergy. However, it may not be the same allergy as their parent or sibling.
Children who are prone to allergy (atopic) can often go on to develop further allergies during their childhood. These may overlap so that they suffer from more than one at a time, or one allergy may subside as another starts.
Allergies and their symptoms often appear in a particular sequence during their childhood, and this progression of the symptoms and allergic disease is known as the 'allergic march'.
In this 'march', children often develop one set of allergies and symptoms in an order related to their age and development. The word 'march' suggests that children pass through each of these stages. However, sometimes a child will take the allergies and symptoms from one stage with them, as they grow older and develop other allergies and symptoms. In this way, allergies and atopic diseases can overlap.
The first sign of the allergic march may be the appearance of eczema in an infant. In a typical pattern of allergy this will develop to food allergy (typical food allergies in young babies first appear during weaning to foods such as cows' milk or egg), rhinitis, and then asthma later on. However, this pattern does not apply to every child, and it is hard to predict how one child with allergy will experience this progression compared to another. Many children who do experience allergic disease in the pattern of an allergic march may grow out of their allergies in early adulthood.
However, it is clear that genetics alone are not the sole cause of allergies. It is widely accepted that the environment in which we live also has a great influence on the development of allergies in children.
If you think your child may be showing symptoms of allergy your GP can refer you to a specialist allergy clinic where they will be able to carry out a full history of your family and your baby's symptoms and be able to carry out the appropriate allergy testing if necessary.
Symptoms of Allergy
Symptoms of allergy can be either immediate or delayed. Immediate symptoms include rashes, hives (nettle rash) vomiting, and swelling of the lips or face, on eating foods. They may also be allergic to allergens found in the home such as house dust mite and develop runny noses, sneezing, wheezing, itchy eyes and coughs. Some babies may have delayed symptoms, this is more difficult to spot as they come on over a period of time causing symptoms such as diarrhoea, colic, eczema and a failure to thrive. Again, an allergy specialist would be able to recognise this in their history taking.
Treatments for children with allergies will vary, depending on what they are allergic and how severe their allergy is. The most important step in managing any allergy is avoidance, and this is why it is so important to know what your child is allergic to. They may also need medications such as antihistamines, to calm down allergic reactions, emollient and steroid creams for eczema, inhalers for asthma, and possibly an auto injector of adrenaline for the most severe type of allergy, anaphylaxis. Thankfully, this is rare in infants.
Sadly, the lack of allergy services in the UK often lead to long waiting lists for an appointment. Our recent report, Allergy - Fighting Back highlights the need for better support for allergy sufferers. Although we have seen some improvement in paediatric allergy services across the UK, it remains very patchy and many parents reported difficulty in accessing a referral, having to travel considerable distances and waiting long periods of time between follow up appointments leaving them feeling isolated and unsupported.
This Allergy Awareness Week (22nd-28th April) Allergy UK have launched a nationwide fundraising appeal to raise Â£1million to provide specialist allergy nurses within the local community to support GPs. We believe that an Allergy UK nurse will be able to help diagnose, treat and manage allergic conditions and give the support that families with allergy so desperately need.
Find out more about childhood allergies by downloading our FREE factsheets. If you would like to support our Nurses Appeal you can fundraise for us or make a donation. For more information about our appeal just visit: www.allergyuk.org/nursesappeal or call 01322 619898.
1Punekar Y.S. and Sheikh, A. Clin Exp Allergy (2009)