Doctors used to say that kids couldn’t develop allergies until age 2. That, they believed, was when their immune systems became advanced enough to launch allergic reactions in response to triggers in the environment. We now know that this isn’t true and that even babies can have allergies to food proteins, dust, mold, and animal dander. Seasonal allergies tend to come a little later as children seem to need at least one full allergy season under their belt to develop an intolerance to certain pollens, but even those can come on as early as age 1.
Studies show that more children are developing allergies. Here are just a few compelling statistics about the increase in allergies and related illnesses in children:
- There has been a 21 percent increase in childhood peanut allergy since 2010 (American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology)
- From 1997 to 2011, food allergy prevalence in children increased by 50 percent (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Eczema among children increased from 2000 to 2010 by the following margins (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Black children: 9 to 17 percent
- Hispanic children: 5 to 10 percent
- White children: 8 to 13 percent
- The number of people diagnosed with asthma grew by 4.3 million from 2001 to 2009, and black children saw a 50 percent increase.
And yet, in spite of these increases, there remain few good treatments, especially for younger children. Here’s a look at some popular treatment methods and their pros and cons.
Allergy drugs. There are many allergy medications on the market, both over-the-counter and prescription. These include antihistamines, decongestants, and steroids (such as asthma inhalers). These drugs can be very helpful for short-term allergy symptoms. When children struggle with allergies that last for more than a few months of the year, however, these medications may not be the best choice for a couple of reasons.
The first major drawback of using allergy medications long-term is that they can cause side effects. For example, antihistamines can cause dry mouth and drowsiness and have been linked to dementia with long-term use; decongestants can cause irregular heartbeat and rebound congestion; steroids can cause weight gain, acne, skin thinning and osteoporosis… and the list goes on. Another disadvantage of these drugs is that they only address the symptoms of allergy—not its underlying cause. Thus, when you stop the meds, the symptoms will come right back.
Allergy immunotherapy. The side effects of allergy immunotherapy are rare and minimal, and unlike medications, this treatment method gets to the heart of the problem. In fact, allergy immunotherapy is the only treatment that has been proven to alter the underlying allergic disease, not just its symptoms. With allergy immunotherapy, children are exposed to the very antigens that would normally trigger their allergies, but they are exposed to them in very small doses over a period of time so that they don’t elicit the same reaction. Ultimately, immunotherapy trains the body to tolerate these antigens rather than overreacting to them in ways that lead to allergy symptoms. After all, there’s nothing inherently harmful about a peanut or a granule of pollen; the problem is that your body mistakes that allergen for something truly dangerous—like a germ or bacteria—and tries to fight it off in ways that actually make the body sick. Once you can “retrain” the immune system, the allergic reactions subside.
Allergy shots have long been the more popular form of allergy immunotherapy, but they have not been shown to be safe for young children, limiting their application. They are also inconvenient for many patients because they must be administered at the doctor’s office a couple of times per week. As a result of these restrictions, many doctors are now prescribing sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT), which has been shown to be safe for children under 5. Sublingual immunotherapy is dispensed as droplets under the tongue that are safe enough to be taken at home. These allergy drops for kids have also been shown to be an effective food allergy treatment program.
Kids’ allergies can cause a runny or congested nose, headaches, hives, eczema, itchy eyes, coughing, chronic ear infections, asthma, and more. It can make children fussy and irritable and affect their ability to concentrate. Food allergies can cause many of these same symptoms as well as gastrointestinal distress (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, gas, and more.)
If your child has allergies, consider seeing a sublingual immunotherapy allergist to talk about different options and see which one sounds right for your child. They can order an allergy test kit to assess the scope of your child’s allergies and craft a treatment plan from there. Many children have been allergic since their earliest years and have no reference point for what it’s like to feel good. The changes in children who can finally regain their quality of life can be wonderful and dramatic.