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Jennifer L.W. Fink
Registered Nurse

Allergies In Babies

Allergies are more common than ever before. Here’s how to spot them—and what to do if baby has them.

What is an allergy for a baby?

“An allergy is a sensitivity to something in the environment,” says Mark Moss, MD, pediatric allergist at the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics. It’s essentially an overreaction of the immune system. For some reason, the immune system sees a harmless substance as harmful and goes into overdrive.

When baby’s body is exposed to the allergen (the trigger substance), it produces an antibody called IgE. IgE then affects the organ systems, causing  symptoms ranging from itchy, watery eyes and sneezing (if it’s an airborne allergen) to a bellyache (like with some food allergies).

What are the symptoms of allergies in babies?

Baby’s symptoms will depend on which organ systems are affected. Environmental, airborne allergies, such as mold and pollen allergies, typically affect the respiratory system, so baby might have a  runny nose or difficulty breathing. Food allergies usually affect the gastrointestinal system, so baby could have lip swelling, nausea, vomiting or  diarrhea if he or she's allergic to something he or she is eating. And some allergies affect the skin, so baby could get a  rash or hives after coming into contact with an allergen.

In general, watch for any adverse reaction—and if you see one, note which substance(s) baby’s been exposed to. You’re looking for a pattern, not a onetime occurrence. Allergic reactions can increase in severity over time, so be sure to tell baby’s doctor if there are any noticeable changes. If your child ever develops shortness of breath or difficulty breathing after exposure to an allergen, seek medical help immediately. Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that can lead to shock and death.

Are there any tests for allergies in babies?

“To diagnose an allergy, we have to find the presence of IgE specific to the triggering allergen. That can be done with an allergy skin test, a blood test or an older type of allergy testing called an intradermal skin test,” Moss says. If you suspect your child has an allergy, consult your pediatrician. They’ll want you to describe baby's reaction to the offending substance(s) and also ask about his or her medical and family history. (A family history of allergies increases the risk of allergies, as does a past history of eczema.)

If the initial pediatric evaluation suggests there could be an allergy, your child may be referred to a pediatric allergist for allergy testing. Skin-prick testing is the most common form of allergy testing in young kids; if your child develops hives when a small amount of allergic substance is “pricked” onto his or her skin, baby's probably allergic to that substance.

How common are allergies in babies?

Allergies are much more common today than they were 100—and even 30—years ago. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, more than 50 million Americans suffer from allergies each year. It’s estimated that 8.4 percent of US children under age 18 suffer from hay fever, 11.6 percent from skin allergies, 10 percent from respiratory allergies and 5.4 percent from food allergies.

How did my baby get allergies?

Some children are more prone to allergies than others. Doctors have noted that babies who have eczema are more likely to develop food allergies and that kids with food allergies are more likely to develop environmental allergies and asthma.

Family history plays a role as well. If you or your partner has allergies, your child is more likely to develop allergies.

A lot of kids, though, develop allergies for no apparent reason.

What’s the best way to treat allergies in babies?

Avoidance. Avoiding your child’s trigger substances should be the cornerstone of his or her allergy management plan. So that may mean switching to a hypoallergenic laundry soap or keeping peanuts out of the house—and instructing grandparents and child care providers to keep them away from your child too.

Medications may help ease your child’s allergy symptoms. An antihistamine (such as Benadryl) can control the itching, hives and runny nose that accompany certain environmental allergies. Your child’s doctor may also order daily medications to control allergy symptoms. Immunotherapy, or “allergy shots” that essentially expose your child to small amounts of the allergen in an attempt to desensitize him or her can also be helpful.

A lot of kids outgrow their allergies, though, so be sure to weigh the risks and benefits of any proposed treatment with your child’s allergist.

Children with severe, life-threatening allergies may need to keep an EpiPen, a syringe filled with a dose of epinephrine, with them at all times. If your child has a severe allergy, make sure that all caregivers thoroughly understand the symptoms of anaphylaxis and know how to use the EpiPen if it’s needed.

What can I do to prevent my baby from getting allergies?

It’s not clear whether you can. Doctors used to advise waiting until your child was older (over 9 months or one year) to introduce common allergens, such as wheat or peanuts, but there’s no solid evidence that this approach works to prevent allergies. And now, some research actually seems to suggest that introducing small amounts of potentially allergenic food early on in a child’s life can prevent food allergies. Talk to your doctor to get the latest information on allergy prevention.

What do other moms do when their babies have allergies?

“Ever since the almond blossoms popped up in our town about a month ago, [my son] has been pretty miserable. He's rubbing his eyes, sneezing and coughing. I took him to the pediatrician, and he recommended giving him Benadryl at night. I just hate giving such a little guy medicine every night before bed.”

“My son has been rubbing his eyes, coughing and is congested, and it all began when the tree out front started pollenating. He went to the doctor yesterday because he kept grabbing his ears. Turns out, his ears are fine, but she did say that he is obviously irritated by the allergens in the air. Most pediatricians I’ve talked to won't even say babies have allergies, but ours said it is definitely possible—but she wouldn't give us any recommendations for allergy meds. We put an air purifier in our son’s room, and we change the air filters often.”

“My daughter has been congested and sneezy for almost three weeks now. I took her to the pediatrician this week, and he gave her a thorough examination and determined that she has allergies. Her lungs were clear, no fever, O2 saturation was 99 percent, ears were clear. So it's allergies. We run the humidifier all night and use saline and the bulb syringe to clean out her nose. We even had the house deep-cleaned this week to get as much dust out as possible.”

Are there any other resources for allergies in babies?

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America