Worried there might be more to your child’s persistent cough than a cold? There is a possibility that it might be childhood allergies. “I’m definitely seeing more kids with allergies these days,” says Dr. Roxanne MacKnight, family doctor in Miramichi, N.B. “But I think we’re just diagnosing them more accurately now.” Among the most common triggers in children are food and environmental factors like pollen, pest, dust and mould. Here’s how to spot the signs and handle childhood allergies if they do appear.
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The sign: Mom or dad — or mom and dad — have allergies of their own
What it means Along with eye colour and personality quirks, parents can pass on their predisposition to allergies. In fact, family history is one of the greatest predictors of allergies in children, says Dr. Zave Chad, an allergist and clinical immunologist in Ottawa. “Allergic kids often come from allergic parents. Family doctors who follow the parents are in an excellent position to screen their babies,” he says. The genetic link won’t guarantee a certain allergy is passed along, though similar allergies tend to run in families, says MacKnight.
What to do When anaphylaxis — a serious allergic reaction, most commonly to foods and insect stings — is present in the family history, infants are screened early on for those triggers to help prevent the unwelcome and potentially frightening response.
The sign: A dry, scaly itchy skin rash, also known as eczema, which typically appears during an infant’s first year
What it means Eczema may be triggered by certain foods in your baby’s diet, but it is also known to be an inherited condition. The good news is 80% of children who have eczema will outgrow it. The tricky part: it may make way for another type of allergy, Chad says. “We call this evolution from one allergy to another the ‘allergic march.’”
What to do Eczema paired with food allergies increases the likelihood your child will develop asthma, Chad says, so it’s best to do a skin test.
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The sign: A stubborn cough that’s triggered when your child laughs, cries, runs around or becomes nervous
What it means If the cough persists for weeks or months and is accompanied by other cold-like symptoms — itchy, watery eyes, stuffy, runny nose — it may be a sign of asthma triggered by dust, pollen, pollution or pets.
What to do The first thing is to track it — take note of when the coughing occurs and what seems to trigger it. Does your child dissolve into a hacking fit at the same time of day or time of year? It’s also important to ensure it’s not a cold or virus and that environmental factors — like common germs at daycare, smokers or a wood burning stove at home — are not to blame. Once all of those possibilities are eliminated and a proper history has been taken, your doctor will prescribe a course of action.
The sign: Wheezing, shortness of breath and laboured breathing, often exacerbated by cold air, humidity and exercise
What it means Though many children who wheeze don’t necessarily have asthma, and many children with asthma don’t always wheeze, it’s usually a good predictor of the allergy, Chad says. If it looks like your child is working really hard to get air in and out — lungs are hyper inflating, shoulders and chest puff up like a football player — this might be a trademark clue.
What to do “Keep a diary of symptoms,” Chad recommends. “A thorough history is the best diagnostic tool.” For treatment there are two main types of meds: relievers (known as bronchodilators) work to open the lungs, while over-the-counter anti-inflammatory meds (called preventer/controllers) can be used as needed, during allergy season, for instance, to open airways and relieve symptoms. Please see your doctor to determine the right course of treatment for your child.
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The sign: Vomiting and abdominal pain shortly after eating
What it means When a child has a food allergy, there’s no delay to the signs — symptoms like projectile vomiting, respiratory and skin reactions, and, less commonly diarrhea and hives, appear quickly, typically within minutes to a half an hour, and no more than two hours after eating. Common food triggers in infants include milk, eggs, nuts, sesame and soy, while wheat and shellfish allergies usually show up in older children and adults, Chad says.
What to do Parents should consult with their child’s doctor immediately in the case of symptoms like vomiting and respiratory issues. And if your child is having difficulty breathing you should call an ambulance right away. For other symptoms Chad recommends parents keep a food diary, track reactions and try to eliminate questionable foods to see if the reaction persists. Traditional wisdom says to delay the introduction of common food triggers — like peanuts and strawberries — to infants, but Chad says this approach is gradually evolving. “This strategy has recently shown to be counterproductive. Recent studies in England and Israel have shown that four month olds who’ve sampled peanuts actually show lower incidence of the allergy,” he says. Of course, if food allergies run in the family, it’s always best to be cautious and speak to your doctor about childhood allergies. And it’s recommended parents wait until their child is six months old before they introduce solid foods.
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