Allergies and Anaphylaxis: the Lowdown
(2021 • 09 • 01)
Affecting 1-2% of adults and 5-8% of children in the UK - and rising steadily - allergy is the most common chronic disease in Western countries. So what do you need to know?
Allergies are becoming more and more common every year, so it’s vital, now more than ever, to understand how they develop and what to look out for. I myself suffer from anaphylaxis (life-threatening allergies), so, for this week’s blog, I’ve collected together all the information you need to know as a parent. Let’s go!
First up, what’s an allergy?
This may seem like an obvious question, but confusion between allergies and intolerances are surprisingly common.
An allergy is a reaction to a (usually harmless) food or substance by the immune system. Symptoms could include: sneezing; red, itchy eyes; a blocked or runny nose; an itchy rash; wheezing; coughing; swelling; a sense of impending doom; a sudden drop in blood pressure and/or difficulty breathing.
Allergies can range in severity from the stuffy nose of mild hay fever to life-threatening anaphylaxis. Even trace amounts of an allergen can trigger a reaction.
An intolerance, on the other hand, does not involve the immune system. If someone has an intolerance to a food, for example, they may experience vomiting, diarrhea or stomach pain. They will usually be able to eat a small amount of that food with no ill effects.
People have allergies to all kinds of things, but some of the most common include:
- Food (particularly nuts, shellfish, milk, eggs, gluten, soya, sesame seeds, fish, celery, lupin, sulphites and mustard)
- Grass and tree pollen (hay fever)
- Animal dander
- Dust mites
- Some medications
- Insect bites and stings
- Household chemicals
Why do some people have allergies, and why are the numbers increasing?
We don’t really know why allergies occur. Those that develop them usually have a family history of either allergies, asthma or eczema (for example, while neither of my parents suffer from anaphylaxis, my father has severe asthma). If neither parent suffers from one of these conditions, the chances of a child developing an allergy are only around 5-15%. If one parent does, the chances rise to approximately 25%, and if both parents suffer from allergies, asthma or eczema, their children have around a 50-70% chance of developing an allergy.
In recent years, the number of children developing allergies has risen dramatically. Between 1995 and 2016 alone, the number of peanut allergies increased fivefold. The reasons for this are still unknown, but researchers have suggested that pollution, dietary changes, reduced exposure to microbes (causing the immune system to attack the wrong things) and vitamin D deficiency could all be possible culprits.
Research has also suggested that when and how allergenic foods are introduced to children could affect their likelihood of developing an allergy. For example, one study at King’s College London found an 80% reduction in the likelihood of developing a peanut allergy in 5 year olds who had regularly consumed peanut from before their first birthday.
It is also thought that exposure to pets from a young age could reduce the risk of allergies to animal dander, but research in this area is limited.
Children can sometimes grow out of allergies, especially if their allergy is to wheat, milk or egg.
How can I reduce my baby’s chances of developing an allergy?
Anyone can develop an allergy at any age, no matter how strictly you follow medical advice. However, there are a few things you can try - from pregnancy to weaning - to improve your little one’s chances.
Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
- Do not avoid eating allergenic foods at any stage of pregnancy or breastfeeding.
- Eating 1 to 2 portions of oily fish a week (e.g. salmon, trout or mackerel) during pregnancy has been linked to lower chances of allergic sensitisation.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
- Get enough Vitamin D! The NHS recommends vitamin D supplements for both pregnant mothers and children under 5.
- Where possible, breastfeed exclusively until 6 months of age, then continue breastfeeding alongside the introduction of solids until at least 1 year of age.
- If breastfeeding is not possible for you, use a cow- or goat-milk based baby formula. Soy milk formula and other ‘hypoallergenic’ milks have no proven effect on allergy development, and should only be used if prescribed by your doctor.
- Introduce allergenic foods between the ages of 6 and 12 months.
This is particularly important for peanuts and hen’s eggs. If your little one already has a food allergy or severe eczema, you may be advised to introduce these foods as early as four months - but always discuss this with your doctor first!
- Leave at least three days between allergenic foods.
Some reactions can be delayed, so this can help you spot the culprit if a reaction does occur.
- Allergenic foods and sick babies don’t mix!
If your little one has a cold, a temperature, or has recently been vaccinated, it can be hard to tell the difference between those symptoms and an allergic reaction.
- Start with a small amount.
Begin with only around ½ a teaspoon of the allergenic food. If no reaction occurs, you can keep increasing the amount over the next few days.
- Keep it regular.
If your little one has no adverse reaction to the allergenic food, keep giving it to them regularly (around once a week) to maintain their tolerance.
How to spot an allergic reaction
Allergic reactions can be potentially life threatening, and the thought of your baby experiencing one can be really scary. Understanding what to look out for, however, can keep your child safe, no matter what happens. Remember, while anaphylaxis is life threatening, less than 1% of cases result in death due to swift responses from emergency services and highly effective treatment.
There are three kinds of allergic reactions to look out for: delayed, mild-moderate immediate and severe immediate (anaphylaxis).
Delayed reactions can happen hours after the new food was introduced, and will not lead to anaphylaxis. Symptoms could include skin reddening, itchiness, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation and/or food refusal.
In the case of a delayed reaction, stop giving them the allergenic food, and their symptoms should clear up within a few days. If the symptoms aren’t severe, you can try the food again in a couple of weeks. If, however, they are severe or persistent, contact your GP.
Mild-moderate immediate reactions will usually occur within 30 minutes of eating the allergen. Symptoms include swollen lips, face or eyes, itchy hives, stomach pain and/or vomiting.
If these moderate symptoms occur, you can call 111 for advice. You should also talk to your GP and get a referral to an allergy unit. Do not reintroduce the allergen.
Severe immediate reactions or anaphylaxis are rare but potentially life threatening. Symptoms may include any of the above, as well as a swollen tongue, persistent cough, difficult or noisy breathing, or becoming pale, floppy and/or unresponsive. If your child exhibits these symptoms, dial 999 immediately and remove the allergen from the vicinity.
If you think your little one may have an allergy, always talk to your GP. They will be able to provide advice and guidance on management and medication (antihistamines) or, in the case of a severe allergy, refer you to a specialist.
Living with anaphylaxis
An allergy diagnosis can be daunting, especially if it’s severe. However, anaphylaxis is a fairly common and manageable condition.
Your little one will be prescribed an epinephrine (adrenaline) auto-injector to carry at all times. As schools and nurseries have to deal with loads of different allergies, they’ll have a set of procedures in place to keep your little one safe and well, and will usually request an auto-injector to keep in their first-aid cupboard.You could also prepare a written care plan for when your child is visiting friends or family.
The best way of managing an allergy, however, is through prevention! You’ll get very good at spotting allergens in foods - I myself can spot an allergen in an ingredients list in seconds. Restaurants and cafes will also be able to provide allergen information, and most places will cook allergen-free dishes on request.
For more information on living with anaphylaxis, head to the Anaphylaxis Campaign Website.
So, I hope the information in this blog helps! If you have any questions, want to share your stories, or have a chat about living with anaphylaxis, you can contact me via the MEplace Instagram.
Content Creator at MEplace