Managing children’s allergies can be very worrying for parents, especially in cases where they could have severe health consequences. It’s important to work closely with the affected child rather than just trying to impose solutions, because sooner or later the child will have to make decisions independently, and they are more likely to follow approaches they have helped to devise.
Working with teachers and other adults involved in their lives, such as sports coaches, can help to keep them safe when they are away from home. Many schools work with parents to create allergy plans that follow a clear format and are easy for everyone involved in a child’s care to reference quickly in the event of an emergency.
Children can sometimes be uncooperative about their allergies because following the rules they have been given is painful or makes them feel excluded from what peers are doing. They can also be frightened of associated medical procedures such as patch testing. It’s often helpful for them to read books featuring characters with allergies or have the chance to socialize with other affected kids. Although adults may wish to shelter them, they’re generally happier when they have more information – often the most frightening thing is not feeling empowered and not knowing what’s going on.
It’s important to know the difference between allergies and intolerances, which are often confused. An allergy is what happens when the immune system rejects a particular substance, whereas intolerance refers to the body being unable to cope with something for other reasons. This can have very different effects on the body. Lactose intolerance, for instance, occurs because some people do not produce enough lactase, the enzyme needed to digest protein in milk. Severe bloating and diarrhea may occur, but taking artificial lactase can help most sufferers cope with having small amounts of milk. For someone with a genuine milk allergy, even small amounts can sometimes trigger a life-threatening reaction.
One particularly severe form of allergic reaction is known as anaphylaxis, or anaphylactic shock. This is every parent’s nightmare. It affects multiple systems in the body and can develop extremely fast, causing the lungs and even the heart to stop working. Sufferers usually carry EpiPens, simple injection mechanisms that anybody can use, which deliver a shot of medication very quickly to stop the reaction. Children can learn to use EpiPens themselves from five or six years old, with focused discussions helping them to understand the importance of this task even if they are not very mature in other ways. Teachers should, of course, have access to these pens and know when and how to use them. Getting to be part of conversations about this can help children to feel confident that an accident will never turn into a disaster.
Common food allergies in childhood include the following:
Peanut allergies – these can be very dangerous and can occur even due to skin contact with another person who has been eating peanuts, which is why many schools ban peanuts from their premises.
Eggs – though rarely life-threatening, this can make children very ill. It’s a difficult one because ingredients from eggs find their way into many other food products and even medicines.
Soy – this is an allergy children tend to grow out of, so the focus should be on keeping them safe in the meantime.
Strawberries – this potentially dangerous allergy can be difficult to manage in children because they may feel tempted to ignore the rules and eat the forbidden fruit.
As soon as they’re old enough to tag along on visits to the supermarket, kids should be encouraged to look at food labels and identify problem ingredients. It can help to personify dangerous foods through activities such as drawing cartoon characters to represent them. This makes it easier for kids to think of them as enemies to be avoided, and to become detectives who discover them when they’re hiding.
Skin allergies can be very itchy or painful, making it hard for children to leave them alone. Eczema is actually an autoimmune disease, where the immune system attacks the body’s own cells, but it can be exacerbated by skin contact allergens. Common ones include the following:
Metal oxides – cheap jewelry may not hurt when first put on but it can cause a reaction over time as the metal oxidizes in contact with the air. Some people even have problems handling money.
Skin products – many people have problems with deodorants, skin creams and even makeup. Safe alternative versions can usually be found.
Insect bites and stings – these can cause various reactions, from mild swelling right through to anaphylaxis.
Some food allergies can show up, so ongoing, unidentified problems such as rashes may require medical investigation. Children can be taught that firm tapping on an affected area can soothe an itch without breaking the skin.
Some of the most frightening allergies to cope with as a parent are those that affect breathing because it’s natural to panic when seeing one’s child fighting for breath. Children need to see parents stay calm, however, so that they can learn not to panic in these situations. These days there is good medicine to help with allergies of this sort, and what’s important is to make sure that children know how to use it properly. It’s easiest for them to learn by doing, such as when parents go through routines with them, helping them take preventative medication until they are able to do it by themselves.
Many breathing-related allergies are seasonal because they are triggered by pollen and similar natural airborne elements. Other people find their symptoms are triggered by artificial chemicals in things such as air fresheners. Many children are affected by feathers in bedding but get much better once they switch to foam pillows, etc.
One of the most emotionally challenging allergy types that can come up in childhood is pet allergy. In some cases this is only mild and it’s possible for the family to keep the pet with a little medical help and minor behavioral changes for the child, but in other cases it means having to give up a beloved animal.
As with other allergy issues, the priority here has to be working with the child and helping them to feel empowered.