Allergies May Be a Mild Nuisance, or a Life-Threatening Condition
SIOUX FALLS (May 1, 2012) – Ranging from a barely noticeable nuisance to a life-threatening condition, allergies are an all-too-common medical condition in children that may or may not require medical attention.
“A person can develop an allergy to anything,” said Dr. Sam Schimelpfenig, pediatrician with Avera Medical Group McGreevy 7th Avenue. Most common allergens involve pollen, mold or dust that’s in the air, pet dander, food such as milk or peanuts, medications or insect bites.
An allergy is when the immune system responds to something that’s foreign to the body. The immune system is designed to protect the body against harmful organisms, such as bacteria and viruses. But in a person with allergies, the immune response is also triggered by things other than infections. When the immune system recognizes an allergen, it triggers a response involving histamine.
For this reason, most allergy symptoms have to do with a histamine response, such as sneezing, runny nose, itching, rashes, hives, swelling or watery eyes.
Dr. Schimelpfenig says the allergic reaction is most likely to happen to the part of the body that comes into contact with the allergen. “If a child is allergic to a certain food, she might experience hives or itching around the mouth,” he said. If the allergen is something that’s breathed in through the airways, it’s more likely to cause sneezing or runny nose.
Rather than a true allergy, symptoms like an upset stomach, diarrhea or cramps more likely are a sign of an adverse reaction to a certain food that gets labeled as an allergy, Dr. Schimelpfenig said. “Food allergies usually involve a protein in food that the body is sensitive to, for example, in milk and peanuts,” he said.
A severe allergic reaction to allergens such as bee stings or peanuts is called “anaphylaxis,” and these reactions must be treated with epinephrine, which can be life saving when given right away. When a severe allergy is discovered, the person must carry an EpiPen which injects this medicine. Life-threatening reactions most often involve the swelling of the airways, limiting or blocking breathing.
It may take one bad reaction to know your child has a severe allergy, Dr. Schimelpfenig said. Or, those with a family history of allergies might want to have their children tested before they are ever exposed. Because of the severity of peanut allergies, doctors recommend that peanut butter not be given to any child under the age of 1.
Asthma is not an allergic reaction, but allergies can trigger an asthma attack. What’s more, some people have a “trio” of asthma, eczema and allergies. “One does not cause the other, but if you have one you’re more likely to have the others,” Dr. Schimelpfenig said.
Allergies involving dust, pollen or mold are treated with antihistamines – medications which block histamines from being released. These may be oral medications, eye drops, or nasal spray. Often, doctors are not able to pinpoint the exact allergen through allergy testing, but because treatment is the same even if the allergen is unknown, it's not always necessary for the child to undergo lots of testing for this type of allergy.
In comparison, it’s good to identify the exact allergen involving a food allergy, so that food can be avoided.
Dr. Schimelpfenig said blood tests for the common allergens can be conducted in your pediatrician’s or family doctor’s office. If the child needs tests for multiple allergens, suffers from several allergies, or doesn’t respond to the typical treatment options, he or she is referred to an allergist.
An allergic reaction may happen the first time a child is exposed to an allergen, or the second or third time, after the immune system is sensitized. “A bigger reaction can build with time,” Dr. Schimelpfenig said. Or, an allergy can develop later in life. Anytime a parent notices possible allergy symptoms, it’s a good idea to mention it to your primary care provider.
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