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How to spot and treat childhood allergies
We tapped an Optum allergy expert to answer five questions about how to spot, care for and stop allergies in children.
Those baby sneezes may be adorable. But if your child is sniffling every day, you might start to wonder about allergies. It's not too soon. Most children have their first allergy symptoms before they’re 5, says Jonathan Field, MD. He’s an allergist and immunologist at ProHealth, part of Optum, in New York City.
If your baby happens to have eczema, an itchy red rash, they’re more likely to have allergies later. And up to 75% of children who have it get hay fever and/or asthma later.1
So how can you know if your child has an allergy and what can you do about it? Dr. Field answers these questions and more below.
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Do children get more allergies now than they did in the past?
Dr. Field: Food allergies have definitely increased among children. With a food allergy, a child can have an eczema flare-up. In the most serious cases, they may develop anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening condition.
Other types of allergies have increased as well. That could be because of the so-called hygiene hypothesis. We live in a place where we have cleaner water, soap and vaccines. Because of this, children are no longer exposed to as many germs. So when something new does come along, their bodies are more likely to overreact. And that’s true even if it’s harmless.
Is it true that feeding peanut butter to babies might prevent them from having a peanut allergy?
Dr. Field: Yes, but this wasn’t fully understood until recently. Even in the early 2000s, doctors believed that exposing young children to certain allergens too soon could cause allergies. Peanuts were one of them.
But a study of 640 babies found the opposite to be true. The babies who ate peanut butter were about 70% to 80% less likely to have a peanut allergy.2
So it’s OK to feed your baby peanut butter before they are 12 months?
Dr. Field: You should always ask your doctor before feeding your baby any unfamiliar food. This is especially true if you have a family history of food allergies. But if not, you may be able to introduce a small amount of peanut butter at 4 to 6 months of age. Ask your doctor for advice on the best way to serve it.
How can parents help their children feel better?
Dr. Field: If your child has allergies, the good news is that there are good treatments. For example, a child with asthma, should always carry an inhaler with them. They can also take daily medications to stop any swelling in their airways.
Another option for some allergies is with immunotherapy. For this treatment, a child is given small amounts of an allergen under the care of a doctor. It can help build up their threshold for what triggers an allergic reaction. It’s not a cure but it can help lower severe reactions.
For hay fever, your doctor may suggest a medicine that has an antihistamine or a decongestant. These medicines block the reaction in the body that causes allergy symptoms.3 Steroids can stop allergy symptoms as well. Plus, they’re available for children in low-dose forms. These include nose sprays or inhalers that lessen the effects of an allergy.
Doctors may also suggest allergy shots for some children. They can lower your child’s sensitivity to airborne allergens such as tree pollen. Steroid creams can help ease eczema.4 Always have an Epipen® (epinephrine) on hand for food allergies. It can help with severe reactions.
How can parents reduce the risk of allergies in their kids?
Dr. Field: Some children are going to have allergies no matter what. But you may be able to reduce the risk even if there’s a family history.
You should focus on your home first. You may be able to prevent or delay asthma and some seasonal allergies in your child by:
Reducing the allergens in the air. That could mean not having carpets and keeping the windows closed on high-pollen days.
Choosing whether to have a pet. If you’re thinking about getting one, you may want to test your child first to see if they may be allergic.
Quitting smoking. If you smoke, try to quit. It can help prevent asthma.5
Buying a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. A HEPA filter can lower the amount of dust, pollen, germs and pet hair in the air. Some of them reduce smoke, too. You can buy a stand-alone air purifiers with a HEPA filter. Or you can have it installed into your home’s heating and cooling system.
- National Eczema Association. Atopic dermatitis. N.D. Accessed June 17, 2022.
- New England Journal of Medicine. Randomized trial of peanut consumption in infants at risk for peanut allergy. February 2015. Accessed June 6, 2022.
- MedlinePlus. Antihistamines for allergies. Last reviewed May 20, 2020. Access June 27, 2022.
- American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Eczema: Overview. Accessed May 31, 2022.
- American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology. Asthma in children. Accessed May 19, 2022.
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