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  • 4/29/2007

All About Allergies



Dust, cats peanuts, cockroaches. An odd grouping, but one with a common thread: allergies.

If you child has allergies, he is not alone. Up to 50 million Americans, including 2 million children, have some type of allergy. For most people, allergies are just an inconvenience. But according to the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease, they are a major cause of disability in the U.S. In fact, it has been estimated that allergies account for the loss of over two million school days per year.

What Are Allergies?

An allergy is an overreaction of the immune system toward a substance that is typically harmless to most people. But in someone with an allergy, the body’s immune system treats the substance, called an allergen, as an invader and  reacts inappropriately resulting in harm to the person.

In the most common type of allergy, at the most common type of allergy, at the first exposure to an allergen, the immune system produces an antibody called immunoglobulin E (LgE).

In the most common type of allergy, at the first exposure to an allergen, the immune system produces an antibody called immunoglobulin E (lgE).

With each suvsequent exposure, the body produces more lgE, which attaches itself to two types of cells in the body called mast cells and basophils. The allergen attaches to the lgE, and the mast cells and basophils are activated to release histamine and other chemicals to defend against the allergen “invader” It is the release of these chemicats that causes allergic reactions, as the body attempts to rid itself of the invading allergen.

Some of the most common allergies include those to food and to airborne allergens such as pollen, mold, dust mites, and animal emanations. Allergies can be seasonal, like dust mites. Regional differences also occur since different allergens are more prevalent in different parts of the country or the world. For example, peanut allergy is unknown in Scandinavia, where they do not eat peanuts, but common in the U.S., where the per capita consumption of peanuts is about 8 pounds a year.

Who Gets Allergies?

Children inherit allergic tendencies from their parents. A few children have allergies in spite of no family member having these, but if one parent has allergies, there is a one in four chance that a child will also have allergies. The risk increases if both parents have allergies.

Allergies also tend to develop in multiple substances. If a child is allergic to one substance, it is likely that he will be allergic to others as well. There are also children who suffer from cross-reactions. For example, children who are allergic to birch pollen might have reactions when they eat an apple because that apple is a protein similar to the pollen.

Another example is children who are allergic to latex (as in gloves or certain types of hospital equipment) are more likely to be allergic to kiwi fruit or bananas.

Symptoms of Allergies: The type and severity of allergy symptoms vary from allergy to allergy and child to child. Some children may experience a combination of symptoms.

Airborne allergens can cause sneezing, itchy nose and/or throat, nasal congestion, and coughing; this is known as allergic rhinitis. These symptoms are often accompanied by itchy, watery, and/ or red eyes, which is called allergic conjunctivitis, or when dark circles are present around the reddened eyes, allergic “shiners.”

The symptoms of allergic rhinitis and conjunctivitis can range from minor or major seasonal annoyances to yearround problems. If they occur with wheezing and shortness of breath, the allergy may have progressed to become asthma, which can be a serious condition.


In children with food allergies, some only exhibit “ oral allergy syndrome” an itchy mouth and throat when food is ingested. Others develop a rash or cramping accompanied by nausea and vomiting or diarrhea, as the body attempts to flush out the irritant. Other common allergic symptoms of allergic food reactions are hives. Runny, itchy nose, and in more severe cases, shortness of breath.

Severity of food allergies and when they develop depends on the quantity of the food eaten, the amount of exposure the child has had, and the child’s sensitivity to the food.

Common foods that may cause allergies include cow’s milk, soy, egg, wheat, seafood, tree nuts (such as walnuts and pistachios), and peanuts.

Peanuts are one of the most severe food allergens, often causing life threatening reactions, (In rare instances, if the sensitivity to an allergen is extreme, a child may develop a life- threatening condition called anaphylactic shock. Severe symptoms or reactions to any allergen require immediate medical attention. Fortunately, severe of life- threatening allergies occur only in a small group of children.)

Does My Child Have an Allergy?

Some allergies are fairly easy to identify because the pattern of symptoms following certain exposures can be hard to miss. But other can masquerade as other conditions.

If your child has cold-like symptoms lasting longer than a week or two or develops a “cold” at the same time every year, consult your child’s doctor. He or she will likely ask questions about the nature of the symptoms and when they appear. Based on the answers to these questions and a physical exam, your child’s doctor may be able to make a diagnosis and prescribe medications or may refer you to an allergist for allergy skin tests and more extensive therapy.

How Are Allergies Treated? There is no cure for allergies, but symptomatic relief is possible. The most effective is by reducing or eliminating exposure to allergens. If reducing exposure is not feasible or is ineffective, medications may be prescribed. In some cases, an allergist may recomment immunotherapy (allergy shots) to help desensitize your child. There are also medications your might be able to give your child, including antihistamines and inhaled or nasal spray steroids.


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