It turns out that allergies are common in kids, and there are a wide range of allergens out there. While many children face allergies and most are mild, it doesn’t make parents worry any less about their own child. After all, allergies can be life-threatening. For this reason, it’s important for parents to watch for allergy symptoms in their kids from an early age.
But what are those symptoms, exactly? What should parents be looking out for, and how do you know when an allergy is mild or serious?
What is an allergy?
An allergy is, essentially, a minor malfunction in a person’s immune system. When working properly, the immune system protects our bodies from harmful substances, such as viruses and bacteria. However, occasionally the immune system overreacts to substances that it sees as dangerous, when in reality, they’re not especially harmful to most people.
When faced with an allergen, the immune system initiates an intense response, releasing chemicals to fight back. This is called an allergic reaction. The location in the body that encounters the allergen will determine the symptoms the person experiences. For example, when the allergen contacts the skin, itchy welts or eczema will present on the skin. If the allergen is consumed, the reaction can be systemic as the allergen circulates throughout the body in the blood stream.
There isn’t a “cure” for allergies, but most people can manage their allergies by avoiding triggers and taking allergy medication, either over-the-counter or prescribed.
What are Mild Allergy Symptoms in Kids?
The good news about allergies is that most of them are fairly mild, and not life-threatening. Hayfever, for example is a very common reaction to pollen and other airborne plant allergens that many people experience. Other common allergens that can provide mild responses are mold, mites, and dust, which can produce symptoms of asthma, like difficulty breathing. Even mild allergies that cause discomfort in kids can get worse over time, so even they should not be ignored. When you see symptoms of allergies in your child, let your pediatrician know so you can get the best relief possible.
Common symptoms of a mild allergy in kids include:
- Skin rash, often itchy or scaly (hives, eczema)
- Asthma or mild difficulty breathing
- Hay fever (allergic rhinitis): nasal congestion, sneezing, itchy nose, watery eyes
- Itchy ears and/or roof of mouth
- Frequent ear infections
- Recurring cold symptoms at the same time each year
- Nausea or vomiting (typically only with a food allergy)
Mild allergy symptoms can be caused by a number of factors, including:
- Pollen from trees, grass, and weeds
- Dust (including chalk dust at school)
- Certain foods (note: food is the most common cause of a severe allergic reaction in kids, which we discuss below)
- Insect bites or stings (also a common cause of severe reaction)
- Animal hair, fur, feathers, or dander
- Cigarette smoke
If you notice any of the symptoms of a mild allergy in your kid—especially after exposure to a common allergen—it’s important to talk to your child’s doctor about it. While most of these mild symptoms are not considered a medical emergency, they can make your child miserable until properly treated.
Your doctor will likely refer you to an allergist for further testing, in order to identify specific triggers and any other potentially harmful irritants.
In the meantime, your doctor will likely urge you to avoid the allergen, and to watch out for symptoms of a more serious reaction. They also might suggest you treat symptoms of any mild reactions using over the counter allergy medicines.
Be sure to follow the advice of your child’s doctor when it comes to the type and amount of allergy medicine you give, which will be based on your child’s age and weight.
Important note: allergy medication, even over the counter medication like Benadryl, can be dangerous if taken accidentally. Always follow best practices for keeping medication and supplements out of reach of children.
Mild allergy symptoms may not be life-threatening, but they should not be ignored. If your child experiences any of these symptoms, schedule an appointment with your child’s doctor and/or an allergist as soon as possible.
What are Serious Allergy Symptoms in Children (anaphylaxis)?
While many allergies result in mild symptoms, others are far more serious. Specifically, we’re talking about anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction that includes constriction of the airways. Anaphylaxis is considered a medical emergency. Anaphylaxis can result in unconsciousness or death. While anaphylaxis sounds incredibly frightening for parents, the good news is that often (but not always)\] the first experience of anaphylaxis is milder and not life-threatening. Therefore, it’s important to recognize the symptoms so that you can identify a new allergy right away and not repeat the exposure and risk a life-threatening reaction.
The symptoms of anaphylaxis often come on quickly, within minutes or even seconds or exposure. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:
- Nausea and/or diarrhea
- Wheezing, trouble breathing
- Weak and rapid pulse
- Swelling of the throat, eyes, face, and/or lips
- Throat and/or tongue feeling “funny” (tingling, numbness, feeling “fat”)
- Itching skin
- Pale skin
Typically, anaphylaxis does not occur as a result of seasonal allergies, or in response to things like dust, mold, or pollen. It is far more common for these severe allergy symptoms to show up after a child is exposed to a specific allergen. The most common of these are:
- Bee/wasp stings
- Peanuts and other nuts
- Certain medications and antibiotics
- Fish and shellfish
- Milk or dairy products
If you notice anaphylaxis in a child, always seek medical treatment immediately, even if symptoms improve.
If you suspect someone is experiencing anaphylaxis do the following:
- Call 911 immediately.
- Ask the person if he/she is carrying an EpiPen (epinephrine auto-injector).
- If the person needs help injecting the EpiPen, do it for them. If a child is experiencing anaphylaxis, you should inject the EpiPen for them. (More information on EpiPens below).
- If the person can swallow, it is beneficial to administer Benadryl or an allergy medicine in addition to the EpiPen. If given quickly, it can help to slow the reaction. Note: Benadryl or a similar medicine alone is not sufficient to treat anaphylaxis.
Other things to note when treating someone experiencing anaphylaxis:
- If the person starts to vomit or bleed from the mouth, turn him or her on their side to help prevent choking.
- If the person becomes unresponsive and shows no signs of circulation, begin CPR immediately. (Find out how to get CPR certified online)
- If you see any indication that the patient’s airway is in danger of closing (the biggest threat of an allergic reaction), seek immediate emergency medical help and use the EpiPen with Benadryl if possible. Signs of a closing airway include: swollen tongue, patient feels like their throat is closing, large amounts of swelling in the throat.
Perhaps most important: an EpiPen is meant to work as a short term life-saving device to allow time for the patient to get to a doctor. Often it will (but doesn’t always) stop anaphylaxis from progressing, and the sufferer may feel much better within seconds. Do not assume that the reaction has ended. It is critical that they be seen by a doctor right away. If not, the epinephrine can wear off, and the reaction can begin again in full force.
What is an EpiPen?
An EpiPen is a small but concentrated dose of epinephrine. Epinephrine is also known as adrenaline, a hormone in our body that stimulates the fight or flight response.
As we discussed, an allergic reaction involves a flood of chemicals into the body, as an attempt to fight off the perceived dangerous substance. These chemicals can have a number of negative effects, but among the most dangerous are a severe drop in blood pressure, and constricted airways.
Epinephrine works to counteract these life-threatening effects. It is a vasoconstrictor, meaning it constricts the blood vessels, helping to raise blood pressure. It also relaxes the muscles of the airways, so the person can breathe again.
The effects of an EpiPen are quick, but fairly short-lived. Even if the EpiPen effectively counteracts the anaphylaxis, it’s still important to seek immediate medical attention immediately after a person has experienced such an attack.
How should I Inject an EpiPen?
Injecting an EpiPen is very simple, but can be scary for some. If you find yourself feeling hesitant about the idea of using an EpiPen on someone, remember: this is a life-threatening situation, and you may be the only person who can help. If you feel as if you are panicking, take a deep breath to refocus.
- EpiPen injection instructions are on the EpiPen.
- The EpiPen can go through clothing.
- The EpiPen will instruct you on how to prepare the pen for injection (e.g. remove the safety release)
- Inject the pen firmly into the upper thigh of the victim, and push down until it clicks
- Hold it in place for 3 seconds before removing
- Massage the injection site gently for 10 seconds or so
- If you or someone else hasn’t already called 911, do so now.
- Have the person lie down & remain still.
- Cover the person with a blanket & loosen any tight clothing.
- If the reaction continues to worsen and paramedics have not arrived, you can deliver a second injection of epinephrine if one is available.
Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency, and should be treated as such. If you notice any of the signs of anaphylaxis in your child, call 911 and use an EpiPen immediately.
Allergies in kids can be scary for everyone involved, especially when the reaction is more serious. Understanding mild vs severe allergy symptoms is vital for a safe home.