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Asthma And Allergies: What Every Parent Needs To Know

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Health, Wellness, & Safety

I once knew a child who was “allergic” to new clothes. Not really, of course, but that was his excuse for not wearing anything new. With allergies on the rise, we parents can be forgiven for believing there could be a reaction to just about anything.

Many children (and adults) are allergic to pollen, which is most evident during the spring and fall. And the summer. And sometimes in the winter if there’s a Christmas tree in the house. Suspect a pollen allergy if your child has the sniffles and headaches but doesn’t seem to be contagious. Pollen allergies, and allergies to cats and dogs, dust mites and dander, are nuisances that crimp a kid’s style but aren’t generally more perilous than that.

A bigger danger is presented by food allergies and allergies to bee stings. Sensitivity to particular triggers may go undetected while slowly accumulating, until one day an exposure results in life-threatening anaphylactic shock. Less dangerous but no less surprising allergies can appear as a skin rash after a binge on a trigger food. This happens quite frequently during strawberry season, when the child who showed no reaction to the usual helping of berries breaks out in spots following a very large portion devoured when berries are in season.

Children under one year may show a reaction to even a single strawberry, or to eggs, honey, and citrus fruits. Waiting to introduce these foods can avoid creating an allergic reaction where one might not have developed. The top food allergies are to milk, eggs, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, and seafood. It is smart to also avoid exposing children to these foods at a young age or if there is a family history of food allergies.

Because some allergies can have such dire consequences, even parents of unaffected children must be aware of allergic reactions that might appear without warning or that might occur when a playmate is visiting. Any sudden difficulty breathing or severe rash deserves a 911 call. This is an emergency.

This is true also of asthma. Asthma is an inflammation, congestion and constriction of the bronchial tubes and related structures that makes it difficult to deliver enough oxygen to the blood. Asthma episodes can be triggered by cold weather, physical activity, and stress. The child who is wheezing and gasping in an asthma attack is naturally upset, which only adds to the problem. Children who have asthma are very likely to need medication to control episodes and may carry an inhaler.

While asthma, like allergies, may be hereditary, there is evidence that, like allergies, asthma can be caused by environmental exposure. Children who live in areas contaminated by dust mites or cockroaches, who are exposed to exhaust fumes and other air borne toxins, or who live with adults who smoke may all be prone to develop asthma. No child should be exposed to second-hand smoke but this is especially important for children with asthma.

Like allergies, asthma can develop over time, with the genetic predisposition aggravated by exposure to environmental triggers. Asthma is a lifelong condition that usually can be controlled with drugs.

Asthma and allergies share a lot of characteristics: both are triggered by the environment but both have a hereditary component. Both can be chronic conditions that are controlled by medication but both can be acutely dangerous, even life-threatening. Both are lifelong. While a child may seem to develop allergies or asthma where she did not exhibit the condition before, once these appear, they tend to be always present in some way.

The parent of a child with asthma or allergies may be tempted to coddle the child and exempt him from outdoor play. As much as possible, children with these conditions should be as active as any other kid. One doesn’t want to make a child an invalid but to support him in doing all he can and managing his symptoms effectively.

Allergies and asthma both seem to be on the rise. Nearly half of all children are allergic to something, according to federal officials, with the cause linked to everything from too much cleanliness to indoor air pollution to early exposure to antibiotics. And the incidence of asthma has doubled in recent years. So every parent – even parents of unaffected kids – needs to be aware of allergies and asthma and be alert to the possibility of an attack.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.