Allergies in kids: symptoms & treatment

Understanding allergies in kids

If you just found out your child has an allergy, there’s no need to panic. Allergies in kids are fairly common, so detecting allergy symptoms and finding treatments is easier than you may think. Here’s everything you need to know about allergies.

What causes allergies?

When a child’s immune system detects a foreign substance, such as pollen or pet dander, it responds as if there’s an attack and creates antibodies to protect against it. This may affect their sinuses, skin digestive, or respiratory systems, all of which can be presented as symptoms.

What can be an allergen?

Allergies can range from food or medicine to pollen, dust, mold, or dander. While an allergen may cause a minor irritation in one child, it could lead to a more serious allergy attack and create a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction in another. Anaphylaxis occurs when the immune system releases a flood of chemicals into the body, which may cause a child to go into shock or suffer from shortness of breath, a rapid pulse, vomiting, or unconsciousness.

If you have questions, a healthcare provider at a convenient urgent care center can help.

How are allergies tested?

There are two main methods to test for allergies – a skin test and a blood test. Both of these tests can be done by a specialist, usually referred to by your primary care or urgent care provider.

Skin allergy test

Also called a scratch test, this is the most common type of allergy test. The healthcare provider will place a small sample of common allergens on the skin, followed by a minor prick or scratch. Redness or swelling that develops within 15-20 minutes indicates an allergy.

Blood allergy test

Certain medications and skin conditions will prohibit your child from having a skin test. A blood test is an alternative that requires a blood draw for lab examination. Allergens are added to the sample and monitored for antibody production, which indicates an allergy.

What are common types of allergies?

Seasonal allergies

Hay fever, or seasonal allergic rhinitis, is the most common allergy for kids. It occurs only during certain times of the year when allergens, such as pollen, are present in the air.

Seasonal allergy symptoms

  • Itchy nose, mouth, or ears
  • Sneezing
  • Itchy, red, watery eyes or swelling around the eyes
  • Clear discharge and runny or stuffy nose

Seasonal allergy treatments

  • Close windows and doors
  • Take off shoes when inside
  • Install filters, like a HEPA filter, on your air-conditioning system
  • Encourage your child to drink more liquids
  • Switch to cleaners with fewer chemicals or products that use vinegar or baking soda
  • Allow outdoor play during mid-day or early evening, when there is less pollen in the air
  • Flush sinuses with a steam bath or nasal rinse
  • Administer a short-acting antihistamine pill, like Benadryl, or a nasal spray, which can be used at bedtime to control symptoms in the morning. 

Food allergies

Almost 90% of food-based reactions are caused by at least one of eight foods: Milk, eggs, peanuts, soy, wheat, fish, shellfish, or tree nuts.

Food allergy symptoms

  • Itchy skin, swelling, or eczema that can occur on the face, lips, tongue, mouth, or extremities 
  • Stomach pain or nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
  • Wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, or a runny, stuffy nose
  • Feeling lightheaded or fainting
  • Anaphylaxis, which can develop quickly after other mild symptoms

Food allergy treatment

  • Check food labels and avoid allergy-inducing food
  • Ensure food is stored away from your child’s reach
  • Administer an antihistamine to relieve mild to moderate symptoms, or use epinephrine for severe allergies
  • Seek immediate medical attention for children with severe food allergies

Insect sting allergies

While many insects can sting, the five most common species that cause allergic reactions include Honeybees, hornets, wasps, yellow jackets, and fire ants. The venom from these insects causes a life-threatening allergic reaction in less than 1% of children.

Insect sting allergy symptoms

Unlike other allergies, most people react to an insect sting. Pain, redness, and swelling are normal reactions at the site of the sting. Additional treatment may be needed if symptoms become severe. When children become symptomatic, they're likely to have just as bad of a reaction – if not worse – the next time.

Mild reactions

  • Pain, redness, and swelling extending beyond the sting site
  • Flushing
  • Warmth or itching at the sting site

Severe reactions

  • Hives that spread to areas outside the sting site
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Swelling of the face, throat, or mouth tissue
  • Fast pulse, restlessness, or anxiousness
  • Wheezing
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of consciousness

While rare, anaphylaxis can cause impaired breathing, shock, unconsciousness, or cardiac arrest within just a few minutes of a sting. These life-threatening reactions require emergency treatment.

Insect sting allergy treatments

  • Remove the stinger by scraping the area with a flat edge
  • Use ice and elevation to control swelling
  • Administer children’s acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce pain
  • Apply ice, calamine lotion, or a child-appropriate dose of antihistamine to soothe itchiness
  • Carry 1-2 doses of injectable epinephrine for emergencies
  • Administer antihistamines, corticosteroids, IV fluids, or oxygen as prescribed by a medical professional

Preventative treatments, such as allergy shots or immunotherapy, can also be used to decrease your child’s sensitivity to stings and reduce or prevent future reactions. 

Skin allergies

Contact dermatitis can cause the skin to become itchy, red, and tender upon contact with certain substances, creating thick, scaly patches over time. Dry, red patches and skin rashes may also be signs of eczema, which can be triggered by dry skin, stress, hormones, sweating, infection, and allergies. Hives and swelling are also signs of skin allergies. 

Skin allergy treatments

Keep skin healthy, clean, and moist when possible. As symptoms arise, use antihistamines to ease itchiness and apply a topical steroid cream as prescribed by your healthcare provider.

Allergies to medications

Common over-the-counter medications – including ibuprofen and aspirin – as well as antibiotics, like penicillin or sulfonamides, can trigger allergies in children and teens. Always check the ingredients on new medications and communicate with your healthcare provider about any concerns. If your child has difficulty breathing, swallowing, or loses consciousness, seek emergency medical treatment immediately.

Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant