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Can babies have allergies?
Yes. Just like older children and adults, babies can have allergies.
However, babies are unlikely to have hay fever. Seasonal allergies to things such as pollen and grass usually don't rear their ugly (and stuffy) head until a child is about 3 to 4 years old.
Possible allergens for babies include:
- Animal dander
- Dust mites
Skin allergies are the most common type of allergy in young children, according to survey data released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2018. In children 4 years old and under, more than 1 in 10 have a skin allergy (14 percent). By comparison, 6 percent of children in this age group have a food allergy, 5 percent have a respiratory allergy, and 3 percent have hay fever.
What's an allergy?
An allergy is an immune reaction to a substance in the environment called an allergen. Babies with allergies could be exposed to an allergen through:
- Eating, or
- Receiving an injection (of medicine, for example)
When a baby with allergies comes into contact with an allergen, her body mistakenly views it as a dangerous invader and releases histamines and other chemicals to fight it off. These chemicals irritate the body and can cause a variety of symptoms.
Signs and symptoms of allergies in babies
Allergy symptoms can vary depending on the type of allergen and your baby's response to them. Symptoms can be mild or severe, intermittent (seasonal, for example), or ongoing because of constant exposure to the allergen. Here are some common signs of allergies:
- Runny nose
- Itching skin
- Red, itchy bumps (hives)
- Eczema (patches of red, itchy rash)
Intestinal problems (common with food allergies)
- Red, teary or itchy eyes
- Excessive fussiness
- More tired than usual
In some cases, an allergen can cause a severe reaction, called anaphylaxis. This is a medical emergency, and you should call 911 or take your baby to the emergency department immediately if she shows signs of this reaction. (If available, give your baby a shot of epinephrine using an appropriately-sized auto injector before calling 911).
Signs of anaphylaxis include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Swelling of lips and tongue
- Sudden skin changes like rash, redness or hives
- Trouble swallowing
- Loss of consciousness
- Sudden drooling
See our article on anaphylactic shock in babies to learn more about symptoms and what to do.
What triggers allergies in babies?
Common allergy triggers in babies and young children include:
- Dust mites. Microscopic organisms that thrive on human skin flakes. Nearly 85 percent of allergy sufferers are allergic to dust mites.
- Animal dander. Those white, flaky specks made up of skin cells shed by cats, dogs, and other furry animals.
- Mold. Fungi found in wet, damp places such as bathrooms and basements or outdoors in humid climates. Mold spores can also grow on Christmas trees and trigger allergy symptoms.
- Pollen. Such as from trees, grasses, and weeds. Pollen allergies are not common in babies.
- Food. Cow's milk, eggs, fish, peanuts, shellfish, soy and wheat are common allergens for young children. Learn more about food allergies in babies.
- Insects. Stings from bees and wasps, for example, can cause a serious allergic reaction in some children.
- Medicines. Antibiotics are common allergens, along with some over-the-counter medicines.
- Chemicals. Certain laundry detergents, dyes, household cleaners and pesticides cause allergic reactions in some children
Some children are allergic to down and feather pillows or wool blankets. And while most experts don't think children can be allergic to tobacco smoke, it can certainly make asthma and allergy symptoms worse.
10 signs that your child has allergies, not a cold
Because the symptoms of nasal allergies are much like cold symptoms – runny nose, watery eyes, cough, nasal congestion, sneezing – it can be tough to tell the difference. There are some telltale signs of allergies, though.
To figure out whether your child has an allergy, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does it seem like your child always has a cold? Colds usually wind down in a week to 10 days; allergies don't.
- Is your child's nose continually stuffy or runny?
- Is your child constantly wiggling, wiping, or pushing her nose up in what doctors call the “allergic salute”?
- Is the mucus that drains from her nose clear and thin (as opposed to yellow or greenish and thick)?
- Does she seem to sneeze a lot?
- Are her eyes itchy, red, and watery?
- Does the skin under her eyes look dark or purple or blue – what doctors call “allergic shiners”?
- Does she breathe through her mouth?
- Does she have a persistent dry cough?
- Is her skin irritated or broken out in an itchy red rash?
If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, there's a good chance your child is allergic to something in her environment. Kids with nasal allergies are also more prone to ear infections, asthma, and sinus infections.
Are allergies inherited?
A child inherits the tendency to be allergic but does not necessarily develop the same particular allergies as other family members. Your child's risk of being allergic is especially high if both you and your partner have allergies.
If my baby is allergic, when will I know?
It depends on how often your child has been exposed to the allergen. It typically takes time for an allergy to develop. Each allergic person has a threshold that must be reached before an allergen causes a reaction, and this can take months to years.. That's why pollen allergies associated with hay fever usually don’t appear until after age 2.
So if your child inherited the tendency to be allergic to cat dander, she may have no trouble at all for the first few months she's around Fluffy, or she may have a reduced reaction. But then one day, when the exposure level reaches her threshold, her body will mount a larger reaction.
How are allergies in babies diagnosed?
It takes some careful detective work and sometimes the help of medical tests to pinpoint the exact cause of an allergy.
You may be able to figure out for yourself what's likely causing the allergy. You might ask yourself:
- When do the allergy attacks occur? Mold allergies usually develop during damp or rainy weather and can be hard to distinguish from colds. Dust mites or pet allergies often cause morning congestion throughout the year. Pollen-related allergies are more common in spring, summer, and fall.
- Whether your baby's symptoms improve in certain situations. If you take your child away from your pet (on vacation, for example) and she seems better, then you have a good – but by no means conclusive – clue that your baby has a pet allergy. You'd also want to consider that your child might be allergic to something else in your house. (Unfortunately, sending Fluffy away for a few days is less effective.. It can take several months after a cat is no longer around for cat dander to degrade to the point that it doesn't bother allergic people).
If your own investigating doesn't give you the answer, it's time to see the doctor. He'll examine your child and ask lots of questions. If the doctor believes the problem is allergies, he may
- Refer you to an allergic specialist
- Order a blood test to measure levels of IgE (allergy) antibodies in your child's blood to determine which allergens your child is sensitized to. Note that you can be sensitized to a given allergen without actually having clinical symptoms of an allergic reaction, in which case it is not necessary to eliminate that allergen from your diet or environment.
- Order a skin prick test. During a skin prick test, an allergist applies small amounts of common allergens to your child's skin. If your child is allergic to a substance, she'll have a reaction similar to a mosquito bite on that spot. Infants may have smaller reactions than older children, but the tests can still be very useful.
"Keep in mind that testing tells you what your child is allergic to at that point, but it may change as your child gets older," says Seattle pediatric allergist Frank S. Virant. If your child has a negative skin test but continues to have allergy symptoms, have her reevaluated in 6 to 12 months.
How can I protect my child from allergens?
Here are the best ways to reduce your child's exposure to the most common allergens:
Dust mites live in fabrics and carpets and are common in every room of the house. But children are usually exposed to the most dust mites in the bedroom, where mattresses and pillows are veritable dust-mite condominiums.
The following steps may seem like a lot of work, but they really help.
- Encase your child's mattress in an impenetrable cover made of very tightly woven fabric, found online and at major retailers. Unlike vinyl covers, these provide a barrier that's breathable and not crinkly. Avoid big, fluffy comforters and use blankets instead.
- Wash bedding once a week in hot water to kill dust mites. Set your water heater to about 130 degrees Fahrenheit before laundering bedding, and warn family members that the water will be hotter than usual. Be sure to turn the water heater back down (to about 120 to 125 degrees) afterward so family members won't scald themselves when they wash their hands or shower.
- Avoid piling up stuffed animals in your child's room – they're dust-mite magnets. Wash the few favorites your child can't live without in hot water weekly or stick them in the freezer for an overnight killing frost.
- Dust and vacuum weekly or every other week, but make sure your child isn't in the room when you do it. Dusting and vacuuming stir up residual dust-mite particles in the room. Wet mopping can help prevent this.
- Consider investing in a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA (high-efficiency-particulate-arresting) filter, which traps even microscopic particles that pass right through ordinary vacuum cleaners.
- Consider replacing carpeting with a smooth floor like hardwood or vinyl if your child has a severe dust mite allergy,
- Clean or replace filters on your furnace and air conditioners monthly during seasons they're in use. Have heating ducts cleaned each fall.
- Wash your pet frequently to keep dander down. You can find shampoos that reduce dander in the pet store or online.
- Keep your pet off the furniture and out of your child's room.
- Find your pet a new loving home. This is the only foolproof solution if your child is allergic to a pet. It is not an easy decision to make, of course, and, understandably, you'll want to consider it only as a last resort.
During allergy season, it can be close to impossible to avoid airborne pollens. You can:
- Try to keep your child indoors with the windows closed during the height of pollen season, particularly on windy days, but this may be unrealistic.
- Bathe and wash your child's hair each night if she does go outdoors, to remove any airborne allergens.
- Dry her clothes in the dryer rather than on the clothesline.
- Close the air ducts to her bedroom.
- Keep tabs on the pollen counts in your area so you know which days to be particularly mindful of your child's exposure.
Mold can often be found growing in closets, attics, cellars, planters, refrigerators, shower stalls, and garbage cans and under carpets. Even a Christmas tree can harbor mold. To reduce mold in your home:
- Use a dehumidifier and air conditioner when the weather is warm and moist, especially in a wet basement or other areas of your home where mold growth is a problem.
- Clean your bathroom and other mold-prone areas regularly with mold-inhibiting disinfectants. You can use a little bleach and water or a natural solution like tea tree oil and water.
- Consider investing in a better ventilation system.
- Be careful with Christmas trees: Freshly cut trees can breed mold spores that, when released into the air and inhaled, can trigger allergy symptoms. If you own a leaf blower, use it on the tree before dragging it through your doorway. You can also rinse the tree outside with a hose and let it dry thoroughly before setting it up inside. Wiping down the trunk of the tree with a bleach solution (1 part bleach to 20 parts water) may also help.
- Clean dusty items: Artificial Christmas trees, decorations, and other objects can get dusty and contribute to allergies if they're left out too long or stored improperly. If items in your home become dirty, clean them with the bleach solution. Make sure they're clean and dry before you put them away, and store them in plastic containers.
Avoid areas that may harbor honeybees, hornets, wasps, yellow jackets, or fire ants whose stings can cause allergic reactions. Don't let your child run around barefoot outside, where he may step on an insect.
Drug allergies are difficult to diagnose, but if your child is found to have an allergy to a medication, be sure to inform all of his health care providers and pharmacists to avoid the chance that the drug may be prescribed in any form.
If you discover that household cleaners made with harsh chemicals trigger allergies in your child, you can experiment with products that are environmentally friendly or you can make your own cleaners that are made with common ingredients found in most homes such as vinegar, lemon, or baking soda.
Is it true that forced air heat can trigger allergies?
Yes, but the problem isn't the heated air – it's contaminants (such as dust mites, mold, mildew, and animal dander) in the heating ducts. If your child starts sneezing when you first turn on your forced air heat in the fall or winter, that's probably why.
You can solve this problem by:
- Attaching a good HEPA air filter to your furnace. This removes allergens from your heater's exhaust. They're available online and at most hardware stores.
- Changing filters regularly. This may be as often as once a month during the winter. Follow the manufacturer's instructions.
- Opening windows in warmer weather. This helps ventilate your home and bring in fresh air, but be cautious of potentially letting in outdoor allergens such as pollen
- Having your ductwork professionally cleaned. If filters don't help, the Environmental Protection Agency says that there is no evidence to suggest that cleaning your ductwork is detrimental providing that it is done properly. You can find a reputable company at the National Air Duct Cleaners Association's website.
Don't use ionizers or ozone generators because they produce ozone, which can irritate the lungs and worsen asthma.
Can I give my baby medications to treat allergies?
Possibly, but don't give her over-the-counter allergy medicine without talking to your doctor first.
The doctor may suggest antihistamines or a nasal steroid spray and offer you a prescription.
Can my baby get allergy shots?
If your child is really plagued by allergies, an allergist might suggest allergy shots (immunotherapy), but typically not until she's 5 years old. There are occasional exceptions for younger children, such as kids with severe asthma or life-threatening anaphylaxis.
Allergy shots are given in the doctor's office and contain small doses of the offending allergen — like pollen, mites, or dander – that help your child's body get used to the substance over time. Shots are typically given twice a week at first, and then gradually at longer intervals until your child has a shot about once very 4 weeks. Allergy symptoms usually improve after several months.
After that, the doctor evaluates the need for further treatments. If the shots have been helpful, your child might continue getting them for years.
How can I prevent my child from getting allergies?
Here's what medical experts have to say about preventing allergies:
Exclusively breastfeeding your baby for the first three to four months lowers his risk of developing eczema during the first two years of life, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). If you continue to breastfeed your baby beyond three to four months, you're also helping to protect him against wheezing until age 2.
And the longer you breastfeed, the less likely it is that your child will develop asthma. This protection can last even beyond his fifth birthday.
What's more, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) says that exclusively breastfeeding your child for four to six months lowers his risk of developing a cow's milk allergy during his first two years.
You might also want to consider taking fish oil and probiotic supplements while pregnant and breastfeeding. A 2018 review found this lowered the likelihood of kids having egg allergies and eczema.
Don't avoid allergenic foods while breastfeeding unless baby has a cow's milk intolerance
Doctors used to advise nursing moms to avoid allergenic foods (cow's milk, soy, eggs, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish) because it was thought that this would protect their babies from developing food allergies. However, the AAP now says there is no evidence to support this claim.
There are exceptions, though. In the rare case that a baby has a reaction to breast milk, for example, it's usually due to an intolerance to cow's milk in the mother's diet. In this scenario, it's important to eliminate cow's milk from your diet.
Introduce allergenic foods early
It used to be considered unwise to give your baby allergenic foods – such as eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts, and fish – in the first year, but this is no longer the case. In fact, recent research – such as the LEAP (Learning Early About Peanut) trial – found that children are actually less likely to develop allergies to foods when they're exposed to them starting at 4 to 6 months and throughout early childhood.
Since every child is different, and experts are continuing to discover new information about allergy prevention, it's best to ask your baby's doctor about when and how to introduce allergenic foods to your child. Read more about how to introduce commonly allergenic foods to your baby.
If formula feeding, ask your child's doctor for recommendations
Infant formulas labeled as "partially" or "extensively hydrolyzed" used to be recommended for formula-feeding babies at high risk of developing allergies, but the AAP now says there isn't enough data to show that these formulas actually help to prevent allergic conditions like eczema, asthma, hay fever, and food allergies.
If your baby is at high risk for allergies and you can't breastfeed her, your child's doctor will probably recommend using a standard cow's milk formula and monitoring for symptoms. If you see signs of an allergy, such as wheezing or a runny nose, your child's doctor will likely recommend a different formula.
One thing you could consider is asking the doctor if your baby might benefit from a formula that contains probiotics. Probiotics are "good" bacteria that promote a balance of bacteria in the digestive system. Some studies suggest that probiotics may reduce allergies, but more research is needed.
Note: The AAP does not recommend using soy formulas to prevent allergies in babies at high risk for allergies. Soy formulas still have the potential to cause allergic reactions in susceptible infants, and they haven't been shown to reduce allergies later in life.
Reduce airborne irritants
You can help protect your child by protecting his air. First and foremost, he shouldn't be exposed to cigarette smoke. Secondhand smoke irritates the lungs and makes babies vulnerable to serious health problems, from asthma and ear infections to sudden infant death syndrome.
Airborne irritants – such as pollen, dust mites, mold, and pet dander – can also trigger asthma or hay fever. Minimize your child's contact with these substances by following the steps in the section above on protecting your child from allergens.
If your child is at high risk for allergies or already has allergies, check out these ways to allergy-proof your home.