Allergies in Children

Allergies in children are a big deal, for them and for their family, and the number of kids affected is rising. Allergy symptoms can affect their participation in regular kid stuff, their safety depending on the allergy and their long-term health.

Allergies are unpredictable. The condition can change or worsen with time. If your child has an allergy, they are more likely to develop other allergies. They may also go on to develop allergic asthma. So it’s important to get an early diagnosis of allergies in children and learn how to manage them.

What are allergies?

Allergies in Children

Allergies in children are a big deal, for them and for their family, and the number of kids affected is rising. Allergy symptoms can affect their participation in regular kid stuff, their safety depending on the allergy and their long-term health.

Allergies are unpredictable. The condition can change or worsen with time. If your child has an allergy, they are more likely to develop other allergies. They may also go on to develop allergic asthma. So it’s important to get an early diagnosis of allergies in children and learn how to manage them.

People tend to talk about hay fever. The medical name for many of the signs and symptoms of seasonal allergies is allergic rhinitis. It’s an inflammation of the lining of your nose.

Allergies in Children

Symptoms of allergies: What the doc calls them

Most people have heard of hay fever and hives. And who doesn’t cough? So let’s start with the medical names for some common symptoms of allergies. It’ll help you decode the information that comes with any allergy medication.

  • Allergic rhinitis: A blocked or runny nose, plus sneezing. Seasonal allergic rhinitis, also known as hay fever, is linked to outdoor allergens such as pollen. Perennial allergic rhinitis means symptoms can be year-round. They happen indoors from allergens such as dust mites.

With an understanding of their allergy, an allergy management plan and the right treatment, many children with allergies lead normal, happy lives. And so do their moms and dads, brothers and sisters. Allergies don’t have to undermine your family life. Here’s what you need to know.

Read on to find out what could be influencing your personal allergy calendar. And what you can do about the triggers and symptoms of seasonal allergies. We’ll look at treatment options and medications too.

What are allergies in children?

Allergies mean your child’s body overreacts to an allergic trigger such as pollen, dust mites and food. Their immune system treats the harmless substance as if it were another threat to protect your child from. That’s why allergy symptoms can look like a cold or other illnesses.

With an understanding of their allergy, an allergy management plan and the right treatment, many children with allergies lead normal, happy lives. And so do their moms and dads, brothers and sisters. Allergies don’t have to undermine your family life. Here’s what you need to know.

What are allergies in children?

What are allergies in children?

Allergies mean your child’s body overreacts to an allergic trigger such as pollen, dust mites and food. Their immune system treats the harmless substance as if it were another threat to protect your child from. That’s why allergy symptoms can look like a cold or other illnesses.

Developing an allergy starts with sensitization. The immune system creates Immunoglobulin E antibodies (IgE) for a specific allergen. That’s the name for a substance that can cause allergies. Kids who are sensitized may never have an allergic reaction but they could the next time they encounter their allergic trigger. Allergy symptoms plus IgE antibodies mean your child has an allergy.

Sometimes allergies are inconvenient. Your child might not get to spend as much time outside or have the pet they want. But allergy symptoms can also take a real toll on everyday life. Your child’s concentration in school could suffer, potentially lowering their grades. It can impact their social life and their mental well-being. And sometimes allergies, particularly to food and insect stings can be life-threatening.

Developing an allergy starts with sensitization. The immune system creates Immunoglobulin E antibodies (IgE) for a specific allergen. That’s the name for a substance that can cause allergies. Kids who are sensitized may never have an allergic reaction but they could the next time they encounter their allergic trigger. Allergy symptoms plus IgE antibodies mean your child has an allergy.

Sometimes allergies are inconvenient. Your child might not get to spend as much time outside or have the pet they want. But allergy symptoms can also take a real toll on everyday life. Your child’s concentration in school could suffer, potentially lowering their grades. It can impact their social life and their mental well-being. And sometimes allergies, particularly to food and insect stings can be life-threatening.

Girl in a yellow t-shirt blowing her nose with her mom’s arm around her

Why do kids get allergies?

A number of theories try to explain the rise of allergies, especially in the western world. The hygiene hypothesis suggests that an excessively clean environment may increase the risk of allergies. This developed into the old friends hypothesis. The idea is that our lack of exposure to harmless microorganisms (the old friends in the name) could mean the immune system can’t learn to react appropriately. Overuse of antibiotics has also been linked to the rise in allergies. The debate continues.

A number of theories try to explain the rise of allergies, especially in the western world. The hygiene hypothesis suggests that an excessively clean environment may increase the risk of allergies. This developed into the old friends hypothesis.

In truth, the reasons why one child starts reacting to something and another doesn’t are complex and not fully understood. But there are recognized risk factors for developing allergies. These include:

The idea is that our lack of exposure to harmless microorganisms (the old friends in the name) could mean the immune system can’t learn to react appropriately. Overuse of antibiotics has also been linked to the rise in allergies. The debate continues.

In truth, the reasons why one child starts reacting to something and another doesn’t are complex and not fully understood. But there are recognized risk factors for developing allergies. These include:

Can you stop allergies in children from starting?

Doctors and scientists are constantly looking for ways to prevent allergies from starting or progressing. One topic of debate is the possible benefit of early exposure to allergens.

Exposure to airborne allergens like plant pollen, pet dander or dust mites can sensitize your child. That’s the first step to developing an allergy. However, some researchers think early exposure to animals may actually be helpful. Kids in homes with pets have shown lower levels of sensitization not just to those animals but also to pollen. Having more pets at home could offer even greater protection. It seems early exposure may alter how the immune system develops.

Allergy experts now believe introducing babies to peanut and other food allergens from six months old or before could make the immune system more accepting. But always ask your doctor first.

Family history and genes

A child is much more likely to develop allergies if their mom or dad also has allergies:

  • The risk is 60-80% if both parents have allergies;
  • 30-50% if one parent is affected;
  • But 12% for a child in a family without allergies.

In some children the skin's natural barrier doesn't function as well as it should, letting allergens pass through more easily. Scientists have linked this to an increased risk of developing atopic dermatitis and allergies.

A girl and boy playing together outside, jumping to touch the soft pink blossom on the trees

In some children the skin's natural barrier doesn't function as well as it should, letting allergens pass through more easily. Scientists have linked this to an increased risk of developing atopic dermatitis and allergies.

Lifestyle and other factors

Environmental risk factors for developing allergies include:

  • Exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke, in the womb and afterwards
  • Early feeding with formula milk and solid food
  • Respiratory infections in young babies
  • Living in urban areas, particularly near a busy road

Can you stop allergies in children from starting?

Doctors and scientists are constantly looking for ways to prevent allergies from starting or progressing. One topic of debate is the possible benefit of early exposure to allergens.

Exposure to airborne allergens like plant pollen, pet dander or dust mites can sensitize your child. That’s the first step to developing an allergy. However, some researchers think early exposure to animals may actually be helpful.

Kids in homes with pets have shown lower levels of sensitization not just to those animals but also to pollen. Having more pets at home could offer even greater protection. It seems early exposure may alter how the immune system develops.

Allergy experts now believe introducing babies to peanut and other food allergens from six months old or before could make the immune system more accepting. But always ask your doctor first.

Infographic about the allergic march, which describes how allergic conditions are connected and can progress over time if left untreated. For example, children with eczema are more likely to get food allergies, then respiratory allergies and even asthma.
Infographic about the allergic march, which describes how allergic conditions are connected and can progress over time if left untreated. For example, children with eczema are more likely to get food allergies, then respiratory allergies and even asthma.
Wearing a vintage gas mask is a bit extreme but avoiding pollen and hay fever symptoms can be a challenge in spring

Hay fever symptoms
aren’t much fun

What causes symptoms of allergies

Allergy symptoms are the outward sign that your body is trying to fight off a threat. Or at least, something it thinks is a threat. That could be pollen or peanut or another substance harmless to most people. Humans do face plenty of real threats like viruses, bacteria, parasites and so on.

It’s why your body has inbuilt protection. Your immune system is always on guard. It makes specific immunoglobulin (IgE) antibodies each time you meet a threat. These antibodies send histamine and white blood cells to flush out any intruder. Your immune system reacts the same way when you come into contact with an allergen. That’s an allergic reaction.

How allergies in children change

The way allergies can develop over time is called the allergic march or atopic march. It usually starts with eczema or atopic dermatitis and skin irritation in infancy. Babies with eczema are more likely to have allergic reactions to food when they begin eating solids. As they reach school age they may start showing signs of respiratory allergies and allergic asthma. The risk of developing allergies and allergic asthma is potentially higher among babies with severe eczema or atopic dermatitis.

One of the challenges of life with allergies is that triggers and symptoms can keep changing. Allergies to certain foods might disappear as children grow older. Respiratory allergies on the other hand can cause chronic, even life-long, symptoms. Closely following your child's allergy symptoms and communicating any changes or increased severity of symptoms to your doctor is important, so that your child can get the help they need.

Need to take your little one to see a specialist? Search for one now and ask your doctor for a referral.

Need to take your little one to see a specialist? Search for one now and ask your doctor for a referral.

What are common allergies in children?

It is possible to develop an allergy to nearly any substance, but some allergies are more common than others. These include:

  • Respiratory allergies (outdoor): Also known as seasonal allergies because they only happen at certain times of the year. Hay fever is an allergic reaction to tree pollen, grass pollen and weed pollen.
  • Respiratory allergies (indoor): Also known as perennial or year-round allergies. Triggers include dust mite waste, pet dander and indoor mold.
  • Food allergies: An allergic reaction to foods, especially eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, shellfish and fish.
  • Insect bites and stings: Bees, wasps and other stinging insects can trigger allergies in children with their venom. Mosquitoes and other biting insects inject saliva which children may react to.

Keep an allergy diary so you can give your doctor information about when your child’s symptoms occur and how severe they are. It’ll help them make their diagnosis.

Children can get tested at any age but the number of things a tiny baby can be allergic to may be limited. After all, you usually need to encounter a substance twice to develop an allergy.

Keep an allergy diary so you can give your doctor information about when your child’s symptoms occur and how severe they are. It’ll help them make their diagnosis.

From allergy testing for kids to a diagnosis

Allergy symptoms in children

Everyone experiences allergies differently and the symptoms will vary from child to child. But these are the most common signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction.

Respiratory allergy symptoms

Breathing in allergens tends to cause symptoms similar to a cold. These can include:

  • itchy, watery, or red eyes
  • stuffy nose nasal congestion
  • itchy, runny nose
  • sneezing
  • coughing
  • wheezing and shortness of breath

Even though these allergies are often called hay fever, they do not cause fevers.

Even though these allergies are often called hay fever, they do not cause fevers.

There are also some signs to look out for. You might notice your child frequently rubbing their eyes. Or you might see them do the so-called allergic salute, rubbing the nose upwards, which can cause a crease over the bridge of the nose.

Sometimes respiratory allergies can cause a local reaction in the face, mouth and throat when your child eats certain foods. This is called oral allergy syndrome (OAS) or pollen food syndrome (PFS). Some proteins in pollen can have a similar structure to proteins in food. The immune system recognizes the structure and triggers a response. This is a cross reaction. Speak to your doctor to find out what’s causing your child's symptoms.

Allergy symptoms in children

Everyone experiences allergies differently and the symptoms will vary from child to child. But these are the most common signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction.

Keep an allergy diary so you can give your doctor information about when your child’s symptoms occur and how severe they are. It’ll help them make their diagnosis.

 

Respiratory allergy symptoms

Breathing in allergens tends to cause symptoms similar to a cold. These can include:

  • itchy, watery, or red eyes
  • stuffy nose nasal congestion
  • itchy, runny nose
  • sneezing
  • coughing
  • wheezing and shortness of breath15

Even though these allergies are often called hay fever, they do not cause fevers.

There are also some signs to look out for. You might notice your child frequently rubbing their eyes. Or you might see them do the so-called allergic salute, rubbing the nose upwards, which can cause a crease over the bridge of the nose.

Sometimes respiratory allergies can cause a local reaction in the face, mouth and throat when your child eats certain foods. This is called oral allergy syndrome (OAS) or pollen food syndrome (PFS). Some proteins in pollen can have a similar structure to proteins in food. The immune system recognizes the structure and triggers a response. This is a cross reaction. Speak to your doctor to find out what’s causing your child's symptoms.

Food allergy symptoms

Food allergy symptoms can occur very soon after eating a problem food or might take up to a few hours to kick in. Some warning signs include:

  • Tingling or itching in the mouth
  • A raised, itchy red rash (hives) – sometimes the skin can turn red and itchy but not raised
  • Swelling of the face, mouth, throat or other parts of the body
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Wheezing or shortness of breath
  • Feeling dizzy and lightheaded
  • Feeling sick (nausea) or vomiting
  • Abdominal pain or diarrhea

Food allergies are one of the most common causes of severe allergic reactions in children. These reactions are called anaphylaxis.

Insect allergy symptoms

After an insect bite or sting, it’s normal to get a raised bump that looks red on paler skin, or purple or brown on darker skin, and can stay itchy for a few days. Allergic reactions to stings from bees, wasps and related insects can also cause more widespread and more intense swelling and redness. Just like food allergies insect stings are a common anaphylaxis trigger.


Anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis is a sudden severe systemic allergic reaction. The most common triggers are food and insect stings. Kids who experience anaphylaxis may first show skin reactions. Symptoms can also affect their breathing, airways and circulation. Anaphylaxis can be life-threatening and needs immediate medical attention.

Be prepared

Anaphylaxis is an emergency and requires immediate medical attention. Learn to recognize the signs and symptoms early so you can respond appropriately.

Recognizing a child’s anaphylactic reaction early can help minimize its severity. Here are the common signs and symptoms:

  • Flushed or pale skin, itching or hives
  • Swelling of the tongue or throat
  • A weak or rapid pulse
  • Diarrhea, feeling or being sick
  • Low blood pressure (hypotension)
  • Narrowing of the airways, which may cause wheezing and trouble breathing
  • Dizziness or fainting

Read more about the treatment for anaphylaxis below.

A smiling girl bumping fists with her doctor after an appointment about her allergies
A smiling girl bumping fists with her doctor after an appointment about her allergies

Diagnosing a kid's allergy

Seeing a doctor and getting a clear diagnosis is an important step for managing allergies in children. If you suspect allergies, talk to your doctor and ask for a referral to see a specialist. When investigating a potential allergy, your doctor or allergist will probably start by asking about the family and medical history of your child. Be prepared to provide information about when symptoms occur, how severe they are, and what appears to trigger them. It’s a good idea to keep an allergy diary for your child to be able to give in-depth information about your child’s symptoms.

Seeing a doctor and getting a clear diagnosis is an important step for managing allergies in children. If you suspect allergies, talk to your doctor and ask for a referral to see a specialist. When investigating a potential allergy, your doctor or allergist will probably start by asking about the family and medical history of your child.

Your doctor or allergist might suggest a skin prick test or a blood test. These allergy tests help them make their diagnosis.

Be prepared to provide information about when symptoms occur, how severe they are, and what appears to trigger them. It’s a good idea to keep an allergy diary for your child to be able to give in-depth information about your child’s symptoms.

Your doctor or allergist might suggest a skin prick test or a blood test. These allergy tests help them make their diagnosis.

How to manage allergies in children

If your child has allergies, it's important to work with your doctor to develop a plan. Of course, the precise details will depend on the trigger. However, a plan is likely to involve these elements:

  • Avoiding their allergens wherever possible
  • Finding the right short-term symptom relief
  • Thinking about retraining the immune system with allergy immunotherapy
  • Safeguarding children at risk of anaphylaxis with a medication to use in emergencies

Avoiding allergens

Avoidance is an essential part to managing any allergy. But no child wants to be told they have to stay indoors and can’t play football in the park when pollen counts are high. Or that they must never accept snacks, if they have a food allergy. Dust mites love soft toys but saying no teddy in bed is not going to be popular either. So, pick your battles and negotiate.

Maybe they can meet friends somewhere indoors or at a different time when pollen isn’t at its peak. Send them to school with yummy but safe snacks to share. And agree on a regular bath-time in the washing machine for teddy (or a spell in the freezer if he doesn’t like getting wet – check the washing instructions).

There’s stuff you can do behind the scenes too, all depending on their allergy. Watch the pollen forecast, use mite-proof covers for your child's bedding, and talk to anyone who’ll be in charge of your child about their allergies. Talk to your child too.

Short-term symptom relief

Kids often take the same type of drug as adults do for their symptoms. Allergy medication for children can come in many forms – for example tablets, liquids, nasal sprays and creams. Allergy medicines include antihistamines, corticosteroids, Leukotriene receptor antagonists and decongestants. But the dose is likely to be lower and the instructions and other information will be specific to children, so read those carefully. Ask your doctor or pharmacist for advice on what’s best for a child of their age. Many types of short-term symptom relief are available as over-the-counter, others only with a prescription.

You can also try drug-free remedies to support treatment. Saline nasal sprays help loosen and thin mucus if your child has a blocked nose. They can help flush out allergens and may also make short-term allergy medicines like antihistamines work better. Try soothing itchy eyes with saline eyedrops or artificial tears.

A girl lying in bed with her hands up to her face as mom leans over and gives her allergy eye drops to soothe the itching

You can also try drug-free remedies to support treatment. Saline nasal sprays help loosen and thin mucus if your child has a blocked nose. They can help flush out allergens and may also make short-term allergy medicines like antihistamines work better. Try soothing itchy eyes with saline eyedrops or artificial tears.

Long-term symptom relief with allergy immunotherapy

It may be difficult to keep symptoms under control, in which case allergy immunotherapy might be an option. The treatment is available for certain triggers such as pollen, dust mite and insect sting allergies.

The idea of allergy immunotherapy is to teach the immune system that the allergen is not the enemy. Repeated tiny doses of the trigger can help your child's body learn not to overreact but to accept contact with the substance.

The goal is to alleviate symptoms during treatment and in the long term, helping to reduce the need for medication. Symptoms may improve after a few months, as the child's body begins to get used to the allergen. But the immune system needs time to relearn and remember so treatment usually lasts three to five years.

Allergy immunotherapy can be given as tablets that dissolve in seconds under the tongue (SLIT) or injections under the skin called allergy shots (SCIT), depending on the allergy and the child’s age. Immunotherapy is not usually given to kids under the age of five.

Ask your doctor about it. We can also help you find an allergist nearby then you can ask for a referral.

If your doctor thinks your child is at risk of an anaphylactic reaction, they’re likely to prescribe an epinephrine auto-injector. Epinephrine is another word for adrenaline. Your child should carry two auto-injectors with them at all times as one dose may not always be enough. They must still go to the hospital even if the injection makes them feel better. This is because it’s possible to have a secondary delayed anaphylactic reaction.

Practice with a training auto-injector and get your child to do the same when they’re old enough. It’s also a good idea for them to wear an allergy alert bracelet.

Two children, a girl and boy, marching hand in hand along a path through the heather. They look like they’re on an adventure

Emergency treatment for anaphylaxis

Allergies to food and insect stings are most likely to cause severe reactions. Anaphylaxis can happen suddenly and needs immediate treatment. If your doctor thinks your child is at risk of an anaphylactic reaction, they’re likely to prescribe an epinephrine auto-injector. Epinephrine is another word for adrenaline. Your child should carry two auto-injectors with them at all times as one dose may not always be enough. They must still go to the hospital even if the injection makes them feel better. This is because it’s possible to have a secondary delayed anaphylactic reaction.

Practice with a training auto-injector and get your child to do the same when they’re old enough. It’s also a good idea for them to wear an allergy alert bracelet.

Allergies to food and insect stings are most likely to cause severe reactions. Anaphylaxis can happen suddenly and needs immediate treatment. If your doctor thinks your child is at risk of an anaphylactic reaction, they’re likely to prescribe an epinephrine auto-injector. Epinephrine is another word for adrenaline.

Your child should carry two auto-injectors with them at all times as one dose may not always be enough. They must still go to the hospital even if the injection makes them feel better. This is because it’s possible to have a secondary delayed anaphylactic reaction.

Practice with a training auto-injector and get your child to do the same when they’re old enough. It’s also a good idea for them to wear an allergy alert bracelet.

The short version

Allergies in children are the result of an overactive immune system, which tries to fight otherwise harmless substances. This can cause allergy symptoms. Common allergens in children include pollen, dust mites, mold, certain foods and insect bites and stings. Respiratory allergies triggered by airborne allergens usually cause an itchy, runny or stuffy nose as well as itchy, watery eyes. Food allergies can cause various digestive symptoms, but also skin reactions. In children food allergies and insect sting allergies are the most common causes of anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction.

Allergies tend to run in families. They often start with eczema in very young children. This might be followed by food allergies in toddlers. Hay fever and other respiratory allergies typically begin in school-aged children and can lead to allergic asthma. This is called the atopic or allergic march.

It's important to communicate your child's symptoms and their frequency and severity clearly to your doctor. It helps make a diagnosis and get your child the best care for their specific allergy, may that be medication such as antihistamines or retraining the immune system with allergy immunotherapy. Getting to the root of the problem early may help stop symptoms from progressing.

Every parent wants their child to be healthy and happy. You may worry that your kid’s allergy undermines those goals. It doesn’t have to. If you think your child might have allergies, or if their current allergy treatment isn’t working, ask for help. Allergies are becoming more common. Your child is not alone and neither are you.

You can do it!

No one’s trained to be a parent, let alone a parent of a child with allergies. If you have any questions (and who wouldn’t, this is complicated stuff), send us an email. And check out the klarify community on Facebook and Instagram.

klarify takes allergy science and makes it simple, and we have rigorous process for doing this. We use up-to-date and authoritative sources of information. Medical experts review our content before we share it with you. They and the klarify editorial team strive to be accurate, thorough, clear and objective at all times. Our editorial policy explains exactly how we do this. 

Last medically reviewed on: 4 October 2023

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