Health AreasMaternal & Child Health

Allergies in Children: Fighting the good fight

My four-year-old daughter is a witty one.

She just beat the terrible two’s and turning three was another milestone when conversations with her finally caught up and we could have a meaningful back-and-forth chat.

If you haven’t met a four-year-old in search of more independence and related with their affinity to pick up complicated words and use them in conversation, walk with me.

It’s a typical Monday evening.

Dinner is served.

She gives the food one look and another look at me, mummy.

I dart my eyes away from her because I am certain she is about to drop a major dictum.

Exactly three seconds later she exclaims;

I am allergic to onions.

I am also allergic to a lot of food.

Allergic is the newest word in her vocabulary this week. She must have picked it up from school.

I ask her what it means to be allergic.

When you have an allergy, you should not eat that type of food because you will get sick. Talia does not take milk because she has an allergy so the teacher gives her drinking chocolate instead, “ she explained meekly.

I will take that explanation.

But this doesn’t solve our current predicament of her alleged allergy to onions and alot of food.

Four-year-old musings aside, what is an allergy?

An allergic reaction occurs when a person’s immune system becomes hypersensitive to certain substances, such ascertain types of foods, pollen, medications or any other environmental factor.

Myths abound about allergies, an area that draws lots of interest. These includes questions such as;

  • Have allergies increased in the last few decades?
  • Are certain people more prone to allergies than others?
  • Are allergies associated with hygiene freaks?
  • Is it true that the more infections you are exposed to in childhood, you have a lower likelihood to develop allergies?

The World Allergy Organisation, WAO, notes that the prevalence of allergic diseases worldwide is rising dramatically in both developed and developing countries in the last two decades with the increase being especially problematic in children, who are bearing the greatest burden of the rising trend.

The WAO estimates that the prevalence of allergies globally is about 20 to 30 % however the actual number of persons with this health condition remains largely unknown.

Dr Elizabeth Kiragu, a consultant paediatric allergist at Aga Khan University hospital defines an allergy as a reaction mediated by your body’s immune system. “ In allergies, your immune system ‘misbehaves’ and starts targeting or responding to normal things that are tolerated by majority of the population,” she said.

Dr Kiragu notes that most allergies happen in the first two years of life and they affect the child’s lifestyle like interfering with their sleep patterns, how they play and other aspects of their day to day lives.
“An allergy can affect different parts of the body like the eyes, nose and the skin whereas in specific cases like food allergies, the gut, skin, airways and lungs could also be affected,” said Dr Kiragu.

The degree of severity of allergic reactions can range from mild to moderate and in some cases, it can be life threatening requiring emergency medical treatment. This is known as anaphylaxis.

Allergies may be caused by an overactive immune system or due to the body’s reaction to protect itself from what it believes is a harmful substance

The most common allergies are either caused by food or other factors in the environment that include house dust, pollen and smoke. The foods that are most likely to cause allergies in children include milk, eggs, peanut, some nuts, fish, wheat, and soy.

The mental and social stress associated with physical symptoms, lack of sleep, poor self esteem due to one’s appearance, poor social integration,” she added.

Some of the commonest symptoms that point towards a food allergy include;

  • Raised, itchy, red rash (hives) most common
  • Tingling in mouth
  • Swollen lips, tongue and throat
  • sneezing and an itchy, runny or blocked nose 
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Stomach pain
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Eczema

There is an urgent need for appropriate training and education for patients and families manage allergies better.

Dr Kiragu notes that a holistic approach is key in management of allergies especially in children because food allergy significantly affects the quality of life of sufferers (mainly children).

Next week, we discuss how to diagnose and manage allergies in children.


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