One in every five adults and children in this country has an allergy, whether to pollen or other substances, such as food, pet dander, certain medications, insects or dust mites. An allergy occurs when your body’s immune system overreacts to a specific substance in the environment. Various symptoms result, from sneezing to hives to serious difficulties breathing. Children seem to be more vulnerable to allergies than adults are. There are no cures for allergies – which can range from physically uncomfortable to potentially deadly conditions – just good prevention and treatment efforts.
In an allergic reaction, the body releases special antibodies, which then trigger the release of chemicals that can cause the physical symptoms and changes associated with allergies. These include hives; runny nose; itching or swelling lips, tongue or throat; upset stomach, cramps, bloating or diarrhea; wheezing or difficulty breathing; and/or anaphylactic shock – a life-threatening body reaction requiring emergency care.
Make an appointment with your pediatrician or family doctor if you suspect your child has an allergy. Health care providers can diagnose an allergy by examining your child, taking a family health history and testing the child for sensitivity to specific allergens. Usually, a physician specializing in allergies (an allergist) will conduct the testing:
• Skin prick tests – Small amounts of suspected allergy triggers are introduced through the skin of the arm or back by pricking the skin with a needle or similar device. If your child is allergic, you will see a raised, red itchy bump called a “wheal” within about 15 minutes. Keep in mind that these tests can be difficult for children afraid of needles. If the child has an emergency anaphylactic response to a substance, health care providers should be prepared to react.
• Blood tests – These tests use radioactive or enzyme markers to detect levels of antibodies related to allergies. They're useful when a skin test is difficult due to widespread skin rash, anxiety about skin pricks, or if your child has the potential for a sudden, severe allergic response.
• Elimination diet – In this test, your health care provider sets up a diet without the food suspected of affecting your child. Your child will stay on the prescribed diet for four to seven days. If allergy symptoms don’t subside, additional foods are eliminated until the symptoms stop. Then new foods are added, one at a time, until symptoms reappear.
A positive allergy test helps your physician figure out the best treatment plan for your child. The doctor may prescribe specific medicine and suggest ways to cut down or eliminate allergens in your child’s environment. Immunotherapy – allergy shots that provide increasingly higher doses of an allergen until you gradually become less sensitive to it – is another option. For more information, visit the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology at www.aaaai.org or the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology at www.acaai.org.