Work out what can cause allergies in your little one & how to spot & treat symptoms

Most of us know someone who's allergic to pollen and is affected by hay fever, so it's worth bearing in mind that babies and very young children may suffer from hay fever and other allergies too. Here are some pointers on how to spot and treat their symptoms.

What are the symptoms of allergies in children?​​​​​​​

Allergy symptoms are caused when the body's natural defences mistake a generally harmless substance (like pollen or certain foods) as an enemy and trigger an immune response, resulting in the release of a chemical called histamine.

Children may be affected by allergens such as pollen and house dust in a similar way to adults. In babies and infants, however, the symptoms may be missed because they're similar to many viral infections – such as the common cold – as well as other conditions, such as asthma. Additionally, babies and infants who can't yet speak are unable to tell us they're feeling ill.

Allergy symptoms may include:

• Itchy, red or watery eyes

• Sneezing and coughing

• Wheezing

• A runny or blocked nose

• Tiredness

Often, it's only when we spot a pattern to a small child's symptoms that we may suspect an allergy. Such patterns might include watery eyes and sneezing only in the summer, or wheezing only around cats or dogs.

If you or your partner have an allergy, this raises the chances of one or more of your children also having an allergy.

What causes allergies in children?

The triggers for air-related allergies in children are the same as in adults. The following are among the most common:

Hay fever

Hay fever is an allergy to pollen – dust-like particles released by plants in order to reproduce. Symptoms can start as early as March and continue through until October.

Your baby or child might be allergic only to a certain pollen type, and have symptoms for just part of this time. Or, they could be allergic to more than one pollen type (such as tree and grass pollen) and exhibit symptoms from spring all the way through to autumn.

Hay fever symptoms also vary depending on weather conditions, which affect the amount of pollen in the air (pollen count). The count is usually at its highest in hot, dry and windy conditions, and this is when symptoms are likely to be at their worst.

Although not serious, hay fever can interfere with sleep and might also affect your child’s ability to concentrate at school. You can help to ease hay fever symptoms in children of all ages by:

• Putting petroleum jelly or a special pollen barrier balm around their nostrils, to trap pollen

• Washing their clothes if they've been outside, to rid them of pollen

• Keeping windows and doors shut

• Vacuuming regularly and dusting with a damp cloth

• Buying a pollen filter for your car's air vents

Pet allergies

The most common animal allergies are to cats and dogs, and it's caused by a reaction to proteins in the animals' saliva and urine. Because cats and dogs groom themselves by licking, these allergens are transferred to their skin and hair, and become airborne.

Particles of dried pet urine can also become airborne.

You can help control pet allergy symptoms by:

• Keeping pets outside as much as possible

• Not allowing them in bedrooms

• Washing pets, and all their bedding, at least once a week

• Grooming them outside

• Buying an air filter for your child's bedroom

• Ventilating your house with fans and by opening windows

• Keeping pet toilet areas as far from your house as possible

Dust allergy

This is a reaction to dust mites, which are tiny insects (invisible to the naked eye) that feed on skin flakes from humans and animals. Dust mites prefer areas where skin scales gather, such as bedding, carpets, soft furnishings, soft toys and clothing. It's possible to manage dust allergy symptoms by:

• Regularly dusting with a damp cloth

• Decluttering, so dusting is easier

• Keeping clothes, books and glasses in closed cupboards or drawers

• Washing clothes at a minimum of 60 degrees, to kill mites

• Choosing hard floors over carpets, which are difficult to clean

• Buying a highly efficient vacuum cleaner with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter

Spore allergy

Moulds produce pollen-like particles called spores, which act as allergens for some of us. Mould loves damp conditions and is usually found in properties that have leaking pipes, broken guttering, rotten window frames or a damaged roof. Poor ventilation is another common cause. 
Spore allergies can be eased by:

• Fixing leaking pipes, guttering, windows and roofs

• Drying clothes outdoors whenever possible

• Fitting extraction units in damp areas, such as kitchens, bathrooms and utility rooms

• Keeping your home ventilated, by opening doors and windows

How can I treat my child's allergy?

If you suspect your child has an allergy, your GP can refer you to an allergy specialist to carry out a skin prick allergy test to help confirm this.

The most effective medical allergy treatments for most people are antihistamines, which come in liquid and tablet form. Not all antihistamines are suitable for younger children, so be sure to speak to your pharmacist about which ones are safe to give to a child.

Unlike food allergies, which can be life-threatening, air-related allergies are rarely serious. However, if your baby or young child has difficulty breathing, book an emergency appointment with your GP. If they develop severe breathing difficulties, call 999 for an ambulance. Also be aware that allergies and asthma often come together, and allergies can trigger asthma attacks.

Next steps

• If you suspect your child has an allergy, visit your GP or ask your pharmacist for advice

• Minimise allergy triggers by closing windows if your child has hay fever, ventilating your home to reduce dust and damp, and keeping pets out of bedrooms

• See your GP if your child develops breathing difficulties. If they develop severe breathing difficulties, call 999


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