Understanding Allergies

Is your child coughing a lot? Does his nose get red and itchy often? This article lists out the common allergies that affect children and the ways in which you can deal with them.

By Malini Gopalakrishnan

Understanding Allergies

Owing to a weaker immune system, children often suffer from allergic reactions. If left unchecked, some allergic reactions could pose a threat to life. Let’s find out more about the different allergies that children are prone to.

In the last decade, there has been an alarming increase in the number of children suffering from allergies in India. Several factors like dust, pollens and bugs adversely affect the delicate immune ecosystem of a child’s body. The 2013 research paper ‘Allergy Situation in India: What is Being Done?’ cites, ‘Approximately 20% to 30 % of total population suffers from at least one of these allergic diseases in India’. It also says, ‘20% to 30% of the population suffer from allergic rhinitis and that 15% develop asthma’. With such staggering odds, it is important to understand the different allergies that can develop in young children and what we should do to keep them safe.

What is an allergy?

The human body is protected from harmful foreign agents by an inbuilt immune system. When a foreign particle enters the body through any of the various orifices like the eyes, nose or mouth, the immune system springs into action. It quickly starts producing antibodies, ie fighter cells, to attack and neutralise the threat. However, in some individuals, the immune system turns oversensitive and identifies even certain harmless substances as threats. These harmless substances are called allergens. The detection of an allergen within the body by the immune system can trigger an immune reaction that can range from mildly irritating to life-threatening.

What are the common types of allergies?

Some of the common allergies diagnosed in Indian children are:

Childhood asthma: This is fast becoming one of the most widespread allergies, the exact cause of which is not yet known. Childhood asthma is an allergy of the respiratory system and causes inflammation or narrowing of the airways, which leads to laboured breathing. There exists no permanent cure for asthma. Dr Atish Laddad, Consultant Paediatrician, Kohinoor Hospital, says that parents should watch out for signs of asthma in children above the age of one. According to him, "One of the earliest signs of the allergy is that the child develops a cough at night just before sleeping or in the morning at the time of waking up." Other symptoms include wheezing, which is characterised by a whistling sound upon breathing, tightness in the chest and general difficulty in breathing.

Rhinitis/hay fever: Contrary to what the name suggests, this allergy has little to do with hay. "Rhinitis is another well-documented allergy in India. It is an unseasonal allergy that is set off by the presence of fine particles like dust, pollen, animal dead skin etc. in the air. The allergy manifests itself as excessive sneezing, itchiness of the throat and redness and irritation of the eyes," explains Dr Laddad. Dr Zareen Mohammed, Consultant Allergist, Dr Mehta's Hospitals says, "Allergic rhinitis may also occur as a result of a secondary effect of food allergies."

Atopic eczema: This is an allergic reaction of the skin and is characterised by patches of red and inflamed skin at specific areas of the body. The word ‘atopic’ indicates a condition that is caused by an individual’s oversensitivity to one or more allergens. "Babies and infants under the age of one are most likely to present with atopic eczema, although we sometimes also get cases in older children. Typically, you will see red, itchy and inflamed patches of skin on the cheek, scalp and forehead," says Dr Laddad. The inflamed areas of the skin may look like small red bumps and are usually quite itchy and dry. In older children, the symptoms might present on the extremities, usually in the bending areas such as inside of the elbows and back of the knees. Atopic eczema can be triggered by various factors such as climate change, exposure to irritants like dust, pollens, bed bugs or mites, or even pollution.

Food allergies: This condition used to be unheard of a decade ago, but is now becoming common in an increasing number of Indian children. Food allergy occurs when a particular food or an ingredient in the food is wrongly recognised as an allergen by the immune system, sparking off an allergic reaction. Dr Zareen Mohammed explains, "Of late we are seeing a large number of children who are allergic to nuts, milk, shell fish, eggs, chicken, brinjal, lemon, chickpea (channa) and moong daal. Food allergies can present a varied reaction among children depending on the type and severity."

The different types of symptoms that present with allergic reactions are:

  • Red, itchy bumps (known as hives) on the skin of the face and/or extremities. Some children also may experience Oral Allergy Syndrome (OAS), which is the swelling and itchiness of the lips and palate after coming into contact with an allergen, mostly through food.
  • Stomach pain, diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting.
  • Irritation of the throat, inflammation of the larynx, and difficulty in breathing or wheezing.
  • Dizziness and fainting.
  • Anaphylactic shock, which is a severe reaction caused by a combination of two or more of the above-mentioned symptoms. Anaphylaxis can be a life-threatening condition.

Allergic reactions usually persist for fifteen minutes to half an hour. Parents should immediately take their child to a paediatrician or an allergist if he starts showing symptoms of allergy.

A child suspected of having an allergy usually receives a skin prick test to identify the allergen. Skin-prick test involves the introduction of a minute amount of allergen into the skin to observe for reactions.

"The cases of allergies that get documented in India are very few and far apart. This can be attributed to the fact that in most cases, the reactions are mild and fleeting," says Dr Laddad. For children who are diagnosed with an allergy, anti-inflammatory drugs can be prescribed. "In severe cases, a child may be put on antihistamines or steroid-based immunosuppressive drugs," explains Dr Mohammed. She also adds that children usually outgrow their allergies by the age of 5–7 years. However, she reiterates that it is better to have allergy test to confirm the same before testing a known allergen on them.

If allergies are left untreated in children, they can lead to fatal consequences. However, proper understanding of the types of allergies and their symptoms can go a long way in alleviating them and ensuring that our children lead a healthy life.

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