The lowdown on allergies

Girl with flowers

Allergies are on the rise but is there anything you can do to stop your baby getting one?

What are allergies?

Allergies are set off when our body’s immune system reacts badly to certain triggers, whether it be pollen, animals, dust, or particular foods. Symptoms can include sneezing, wheezing, itching, inflammation, a runny nose and rashes.

What causes allergies?

Allergies have no single cause but research has shown that smoking during pregnancy or around a baby, being overweight during pregnancy, using antibiotics, and Caesarean births can increase the risk of your baby developing an allergy.

When it comes to nuts and allergies, it’s a bit of a minefield. There’s insufficient scientific evidence to suggest whether food avoidance affects allergies or not. Some studies seem to show eating nuts could cause allergies, while others suggest the opposite – it’s no wonder we’re all confused! The Food Standards Agency (FSA) say that, “if you would like to eat peanuts or foods containing peanuts (such as peanut butter) when you’re pregnant, you can choose to do so, unless you’re allergic to them yourself or unless your health professional advises you not to.”

Another factor behind allergies could be our obsession with cleanliness. Experts claim that our use of disinfectants has created too sterile an environment. Our children, therefore, aren’t exposed to enough microbes to build a strong immune system.

Can I prevent my baby getting an allergy?

Allergies have a lot to do with genetic factors. If neither you or your partner have any allergies, your child only has a one in 10 chance of getting one. If one parent has an allergy, the risk rises to one in five. If both of you have an allergy, there’s about a one in two chance of your child suffering as well.

Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of your child developing an allergy:

Breastfeed until six months

Breast feeding

Breastfeeding for six months can help fight allergies

Breastfeeding exclusively until your baby’s at least six months old is the biggest thing you can do to reduce her risk and boost her immune system.  Reducing your intake of dairy products, which are linked to allergies, while you’re breastfeeding can also help. If you’re bottlefeeding, talk to your health visitor about using a hypoallergenic infant formula.

Don’t smoke

Smoking during pregnancy or around babies and children increases their likelihood of developing allergies. Studies have found that children who live in a house where people smoke have a much higher chance of developing asthma.

Be clean, but not too clean

Regularly vacuuming your floors, carpets, sofas and curtains will reduce the allergens in the air, such as pollen and dust, that can cause allergies. Wash bedding regularly and dust with a damp cloth so you pick the dust up rather than just move it about. But don’t go overboard on disinfectants – exposure to the odd germ will help build your child’s immune system.

How can I spot if my baby has an allergy?

The symptoms of an allergy include:

  • Wheezing
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Rashes
  • Redness in the face
  • Itching

These symptoms are, however, commonplace to many childhood illnesses. So how do you tell if it’s something more serious?

Look at her face

Experts have noticed that children with allergies often have pale or wan complexions. This is known as ‘white dermatographism’. If your child often looks under the weather, it could be a sign she’s prone to allergies. Also, look out for dark shadows under your child’s eye. These are caused by congestion in the veins under the skin around the eyes.

Watch out for an itchy nose

Allergies can cause an itchy nose and a habit known as the ‘nasal salute’. The itching causes children to rub their noses with the palm of their hand, pressing upwards.

Look at her skin

Children with allergies, particularly eczema, often have dry, rough skin. This is known as xerosis and usually appears on the cheeks, arms and chest.

Be aware of glue ear

If your child is having problems hearing or suffers a short attention span, she may have glue ear. This is when the middle ear becomes filled with a glue-like liquid rather than air and is common with nasal allergies.

Look for a postnasal drip

Allergies that irritate the nasal passages can cause a constant build up of mucous, which then drips down the throat. Symptoms include coughing, constant clearing of the throat, a constant sore or tickly throat.

Look out for an upset stomach

Food allergies can cause vomiting and diarrhoea, as well as rashes, itching, swollen lips and throat, and wheezing.

Should we visit the doctor?

If you’re worried your child is suffering from an allergy, talk to your GP or health visitor. There are treatments for eczema and asthma and most food allergies can be controlled. Fortunately, around 90% of children grow out of infant allergies to foods such as milk and eggs. About two thirds of babies with eczema outgrow it by the time they’re seven. In under fives, of those who suffer asthma, a third will outgrow it, a third will have the condition forever and the final third will outgrow it but  it will return in later life.

For more information and advice contact:

Allergy UK Tel: 01322 619 898
National Eczema Society Tel: 0800 089 1122
Asthma UK Tel: 0800 121 62 44

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