With childhood allergy rapidly on the rise in Australia, managing allergies and making the right decision in an emergency can be a challenge for parents, grandparents, babysitters, teachers and other carers.
It’s estimated 40 per cent of children will be affected by some kind of allergy. Currently there is no cure for allergies, and research is now aimed at finding ways to prevent allergies from developing.
The most common childhood allergic conditions are food allergies, asthma, hay fever and eczema.
Australia has the highest food allergy rate in the world, according to Murdoch Children’s Research Institute: 10 per cent of infants aged 12 months have a clinically confirmed food allergy.
The most important thing to know is that allergies to foods, drugs and insect stings can sometimes result in anaphylaxis, a severe, life-threatening reaction requiring urgent medical attention. It’s critical to spot the symptoms quickly and manage the reaction.
Anaphylaxis usually occurs within minutes of exposure to an allergen. But it can occur up to two hours later.
If you think your child may have an allergy, especially a food allergy, speak to your GP. They may refer you to an allergy and immunology specialist to assess your child.
If you have a family history of allergy, you can help protect your child from developing an allergy by not smoking during pregnancy and breastfeeding your baby for at least the first six months.
The way you introduce food to your infant can also affect whether an allergy develops and there have been important changes to the Infant Feeding Guidelines. The Prevent Allergies website has just been launched under the national ‘Nip it in the Bub’ project. It has tools to help you introduce common allergy-causing foods to your baby. It also has information and practical videos on how to manage eczema.
Research shows introducing your baby to common allergy-causing foods before 12 months of age can greatly reduce the risk of him/her developing an allergy to those foods.
Australian specialists recommend introducing your baby to peanut butter and well-cooked egg at around 6 months of age, but not before four months. It’s also important, if possible, to continue breastfeeding as you introduce solid foods to your baby.
Eggs, milk, and peanuts are the most common childhood food allergies. Peanut and nut tree allergies are usually for life, but most children will grow out of milk and egg allergies.
Scientists don’t yet know why food allergies develop, but there is evidence that food allergy runs in families. Environmental factors, such as where a child lives, can also play a part. Theories being explored include disturbances to the gut microbiota and the 'too clean theory'. It's thought our Western obsession with cleanliness may be partly responsible for the dramatic rise in food allergies. This theory is supported by research showing that babies who grow up in homes with siblings and dogs are less likely to develop allergies. Lower vitamin D levels are also being studied as a possible factor in allergy. The Centre for Food and Allergy Research is currently exploring the relationship between food allergies and a child’s vitamin status, immune function and the timing of allergen exposure.
Belgian researchers hope to create a vaccine by studying how young children exposed to dust on dairy farms are protected against allergies and asthma. Most children exposed to the farm dust produce the protein A20 which appears to offer protection against inflammatory responses.
According to Allergy and Anaphylaxis Australia, if you or your partner have an allergy, your child will have a 30 per cent chance of inheriting the gene that can lead to conditions such as eczema, asthma and hay fever or food allergies. If both of you have allergies, the risk of your child developing some sort of allergy could be as high as a 60 per cent.
Knowing your child's risk of developing an allergy means you can act early to help prevent an allergy developing.
For example, scientists have found that regularly using a fragrance-free moisturiser on your baby can reduce his/her risk of developing eczema by 30 to 50 per cent. They have also found that good management of eczema in babies can reduce the chance of them developing a food allergy.
Managing non-food allergies is also a challenge for parents and carers. Australian parenting website Raising Children has excellent tips on dealing with non-food allergies, such as pet and medication allergies.