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Allergies in babies

December 11, 2020 • read

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Allergies in babies

COVID-19 has us wanting to avoid unnecessary trips to the ER more than ever (as if we needed another reason). This leaves many parents wondering if they should be introducing potential food allergens to their little ones right now. Luckily, the Canadian Pediatric Society has clear guidelines on this. According to them, there’s “never been a death due to first ingestion of an allergenic food in infancy.” In other words, parents can give their kids potentially allergenic foods as long as they do it safely. Here’s everything you need to know about allergies in babies, to keep your child safe.

What causes food allergies in babies?

Allergic reactions happen when your immune system misidentifies a harmless substance (like eggs) as a threat. This causes the body to release chemicals called histamines, which trigger an immune response. So it’s actually your body’s own immune response causing the allergy symptoms like swelling and hives.

We know there’s a hereditary component to allergies because children with a parent or sibling with one are more likely to have an allergy too. But just because you’re allergic to shellfish, doesn’t mean your child will be. Researchers think that epigenetics play a role in who develops allergies. In other words, you can have the genes for an allergy, but if certain environmental factors don’t “turn on” those genes, you won’t end up with one. 

How to tell if your baby has allergies

Allergies can show up in a few different ways. Seasonal allergies in babies or toddlers often cause watery eyes or runny noses, for example. But nasal allergy symptoms in babies don’t just indicate seasonal issues. Infant food allergies can affect baby’s eyes — making them water and itch as well as causing runny nose. Pet allergies in babies often show up this way as well. 

Hives and rashes can signal baby allergies as well. These show up for all sorts of allergic reactions — from mild laundry detergent allergies to an anaphylactic reaction to peanuts. But there are a whole bunch of allergy symptoms you might see in your little one — more on this below.

Allergy symptoms in babies and toddlers

Allergy symptoms are varied and can range from mild to severe. They include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloody stool
  • Swelling of the lips and mouth
  • Wheezing/trouble breathing
  • Hives/rash
  • Eczema
  • Cough
  • Itchy, watery eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Pale face
  • Blue lips and/or face
  • Losing consciousness

What is anaphylaxis?

Anaphylaxis is a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. It can look a little different depending on the child, from swelling in the lips and face to laboured breathing. In other cases, your child’s lips can take on a  bluish tinge and they may become sleepy. This is just as severe as it’s a sign that their blood isn’t getting enough oxygen. Anaphylaxis is always a medical emergency.

Can I prevent allergies in my child?

No, not entirely. But you may be able to lower their risk of developing one. For starters, doctors recommend breastfeeding your child (if possible) as it may decrease their risk for developing allergies.

And when it comes to introducing food allergens to kids, the thinking has changed over the years. Doctors used to tell parents to hold off on giving allergens like peanuts until age one. But evidence now shows that kids should eat potentially allergenic foods early and often. This means that it’s ok to feed them to your baby starting at about six months. And don’t just do it once. Allergy Canada recommends you continue giving them to your baby two to three times a week to make sure they don’t develop an allergy over time. 

Toddlers and food allergies

The most common allergies in toddlers are: milk, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish and fish, eggs, wheat and soy. Because things like oysters aren’t a common baby food in Canada, you might not realize your child has an allergy until they become a toddler. The good news is that many children outgrow their milk, wheat, egg or soy allergy. Peanut and shellfish allergies, however, don’t usually go away.

Treating allergic reactions in babies and toddlers

Babies can’t take allergy medicine, but parents can use an over-the-counter (OTC) medication like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) for children over two. But if your toddler hasn’t taken allergy medicine before, check with their pediatrician first. It’s a good idea to connect with their doctor each time your child has an allergic reaction to something new anyway. Reactions can increase in severity at each exposure — and can even progress from mild to anaphylactic.

If your child does have an anaphylactic allergy to something, they will need an epipen. In this case, you must administer the epipen as soon as you notice signs of an anaphylactic reaction and then dial 9-1-1. Always take your child to the hospital after they receive their epipen, even if they seem to recover fully. 

Is there a cure for allergies?

There is no cure for allergies, but therapies such as immunotherapy can help to treat them. Immunotherapy involves exposing allergy sufferers to microscopic doses of their allergen and gradually increasing the dosage over time as their immune response lessens. This can only be done safely in a clinical setting by doctors and should never be attempted on your own.

Allergic reactions are scary. But research shows us that introducing potential allergens instead of keeping our children in a food bubble is actually safer. If you’re still feeling nervous, you can always take your little one to the local hospital’s parking lot for their first taste of peanut butter. And as always, speak to your child’s doctor if you have any concerns.

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