Understanding allergic reactions: What they are and what to do
Here’s a quick reference guide to allergic reactions and how to help from allergy and immunology specialist Dr. Santhosh Kumar.
The term allergy describes a condition where the body over-responds to a harmless substance. When a substance triggers an allergic response in the nose, it is considered a nasal allergy. Common symptoms of nasal allergies include:
- Runny nose
- Itchy/watery eyes
- Stuffy nose
- Nose bleeds
- Decreased sense of smell
- Poor sleep
Other symptoms that can result from nasal allergies include sinus pressure, earaches, throat itching, post nasal drip (excess mucus in the back of the throat) and cough.
Common triggers for nasal allergies that occur year-round (perennial nasal allergies) include indoor allergens such as dust mites; dander (hair, feathers or skin) from cats, dogs, mice, rats and birds; roaches; and mold.
Common triggers for nasal allergies that occur during particular seasons (often called “hay fever”) include outdoor allergens such as tree, grass and weed pollen and outdoor mold.
What to do – If you think your child has nasal allergy symptoms, request a referral from your primary care doctor to see an allergist for evaluation. An allergist will be able to identify triggers for your child’s allergy and offer allergen avoidance measures, medication and other treatments, depending on the need.
A food allergy is a repeated abnormal response of the body’s immune system to a food. Food allergy symptoms can vary from mild to severe. Symptoms of an allergic reaction to a food may include:
- Skin rash with itching
- Swelling of the face/mouth/lips/throat/tongue
- Throat closing/throat tightening/voice change
- Coughing/wheezing/trouble breathing
Most food allergy symptoms appear within 15-30 minutes after ingesting the food, but in some cases symptoms will not appear until 30 minutes to two hours after ingesting the item (or even longer).
The foods that cause the majority of food allergies in children are milk, soy, wheat, fish, shellfish, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (almonds, cashews, walnuts, etc.), sesame and corn.
What to do – If you suspect a child has an allergy to a particular food, immediately stop the child from further eating that particular food. Remove all clothing which might have the food still on it. Wash child’s hands thoroughly. Depending on the severity of the reaction, the child should be checked by a primary care physician or in the emergency room. In some cases, food allergies can be life-threatening and if you are unable to judge the severity of the reaction, the child should be taken to the nearest emergency room for care. (Note: See “what to do if child is having a severe allergic reaction” below for more on providing immediate help for a severe reaction.)
Bee and wasp stings
A normal reaction to a bee or wasp sting includes intense pain, a whitish bump with a red dot in its center and swelling at the site of the sting. Individuals who display the symptoms listed below may be having a serious allergic reaction to a sting:
- Itchy red rash all over the body
- Breathing difficulty/throat tightening
- Tongue swelling
- Swelling NOT at the site of the sting
What to do – Call 911 immediately if you see severe allergic reaction symptoms to a bee or wasp sting. Give the child an age-appropriate dose of Benadryl® or Zyrtec® while waiting for 911 to arrive and use child’s EpiPen® if they’ve been prescribed one. (See “what to do if child is having a severe allergic reaction” below for more on providing immediate help for a severe reaction.)
Medication reactions are very tricky and symptoms of allergic reactions to medications vary greatly. Check with the prescribing physician for abnormal symptoms to watch for when your child is prescribed a medication. Some of the symptoms of an allergic reaction to medication are similar to those listed above for food allergy.
What to do – Always call the prescribing physician to report any abnormal symptoms to make sure it’s not an allergic reaction which might require stopping the medication. (See “what to do if child is having a severe allergic reaction” below for more on providing immediate help for a severe reaction.)
Skin reaction to a substance can be either allergic or irritant. The most common skin condition associated with allergy is eczema. Eczema or atopic dermatitis (long-lasting form of eczema) is a chronic itchy skin condition with frequent exacerbations triggered by irritants and/or allergens. Symptoms of skin allergy include:
- Dryness with flaking of skin
- Dry flaky scalp
- Change in skin color (lightening or darkening)
What to do – If you suspect your child has skin allergy, please make note of all the new things your child came in contact with or ingested since the symptoms started. Make an appointment to see an allergist for an evaluation to identify the culprit and for treatment. If your child has an acute (immediate) reaction, remove the child’s exposure to the substance by washing, use Benadryl® or Zyrtec® for itch symptom relief, and seek medical attention.
by Dr. Santhosh Kumar, Allergy and Immunology
Allergy and immunology specialists at CHoR provide comprehensive care for children with allergies and other immune system disorders.
What to do if child is having a severe allergic reaction
Severe allergic reactions can be life-threatening. Severe reactions most often occur related to food, medication and bee/wasp sting allergies. If you suspect a child is having a severe allergic reaction, here’s how to provide immediate help:
-First and foremost, lay the child flat on the ground with their legs elevated.
-If the child has been prescribed an EpiPen® for emergency treatment of allergic reactions, use it as instructed.
-Call 911 immediately.
-If the child is able to swallow Benadryl® or Zyrtec®, administer an age-appropriate dose. (Note: Having liquid Benadryl® or Zyrtec®, at home helps as some kids with tongue swelling or other severe reaction symptoms might not be able to swallow a pill or tablet.)
Timely intervention can save a life.