Sniffles? Sneezes? Reflux? Constipation? Your little one could well be suffering from an allergic reaction…
It’s official: allergies are on the rise. Up to half of the 60,000 or so babies born this month in the UK will go on to develop an allergic reaction, so it’s important to be able to spot the symptoms. ‘A study looking at the incidence of peanut allergy in children on the Isle of Wight alone found the problem trebled between 2000 and 2010,’ says consultant paediatric allergist Dr Adam Fox, co-author of The Allergy-Free Baby and Toddler Book (£12.99, Vermilion). But despite this, no one is sure why the incidence of allergies is increasing.
There are a wide range of known allergens, from cat dander to milk proteins to dust mites
What causes allergies?
‘Allergies are complex,’ explains Adam. ‘When a child has an allergic reaction, her immune system responds inappropriately to a particular substance, called an allergen. There are a wide range of known allergens, from cat dander [flakes of skin in the fur] to milk proteins to dust mites. When her body senses the allergen, it prompts a particular group of cells – mast cells – to release a chemical called histamine. Histamine makes the child’s airways shrink, so it can be hard to breathe. It also leads to the classic allergy symptoms, like a bunged-up nose, itchy eyes and hives.’
You may recognise allergies by a different name: eczema affects the skin, asthma affects the airways, hay fever affects the nose and eyes, while a food allergy affects the stomach or skin.
On rare occasions, the release of histamine can cause a severe physical reaction called anaphylaxis. This is an acute, whole-body response to the histamine and it’s potentially life-threatening. There are two types of allergic reaction. In an immediate allergic reaction, symptoms occur as soon as your baby is exposed to the allergen. In a delayed reaction, the symptoms build up over time. ‘With a delayed reaction, a baby can have chronic symptoms, such as reflux, diarrhoea or constipation. And it’s much harder to work out which substance is causing the allergy,’ says Adam.
If you have a history of allergies in your family, your baby is more likely to suffer
Why has my baby got an allergy?
There’s no sure-fire way to tell if your baby is likely to develop an allergy or what sort of allergy it will be. But if you have a history of allergies in your family, your baby is more likely to suffer. In families with a history of them, over half of children go on to develop an allergy themselves. Whereas in families without a history of allergies, only one in five children is affected. ‘But the child won’t necessarily have the same allergy as her parents or siblings,’ says Adam.
Large-scale trials were recently run to ascertain if allergies were reduced when mums avoided certain foods during pregnancy and breastfeeding. The results showed that what a breastfeeding mother ate didn’t affect whether her baby went on to develop an allergy. That’s why the current advice from the NHS is that women can eat food like peanuts during pregnancy, as long as they aren’t allergic to them themselves. There is one thing you can do to help protect your baby against allergies, that’s breastfeed her for the first four to six months. ‘Breastfeeding doesn’t mean that a child won’t get an allergy,’ says Adam. ‘But it does help to reduce the risk, because the antigens in breast milk can make a child less susceptible.’
How allergies are linked
Eczema, asthma, hay fever and food allergies affect a baby’s body in different ways, but they are linked. Having one condition can predispose your baby to develop other allergic responses. ‘This is called the “allergic march”,’ explains Adam. ‘This refers to the way children can progress through different allergic responses: from eczema to food allergies to hay fever to asthma. One warning sign is if your child has eczema and an egg allergy – 70% of those children go on to get a respiratory allergy, like asthma.’
Keep a diary of your child’s symptoms and what may have triggered them
When should I see a GP?
If you suspect your baby is having or has had a non-emergency allergic reaction, take her to your GP, who may refer her to a specialist. Keep a diary of your child’s symptoms and what may have triggered them. In many cases, allergies can be managed by avoiding the trigger or by prescribed medication. And don’t worry that your baby will suffer from this allergy for life. ‘Children can just outgrow their allergies,’ says Adam. ‘It’s just that, once again, we don’t know why.’
Get more help
Visit nhs.uk for advice on recognising and treating allergies.