Family, Health

Childhood Allergies on the Rise and More Severe

By Beth W. Orenstein
Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH

If it seems like the number of kids with allergies is increasing, it’s not your imagination — and that’s why parents need a crash course in allergy preparedness. In fact, not only are more children affected by allergies, but the severity of allergic reactions is worsening, too.

Between 1997 and 2011, food allergies among children under age 18 jumped 50 percent, according to a 2013 report from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And children with food allergies also tend to have higher rates of skin allergies. “We know that food allergies and skin allergies go together,” says Amy Branum, PhD, MSPH, a health statistician with the CDC.Health

Eat or touch something they’re allergic to, and many children will get hives or a skin reaction, says Joshua Davidson, MD, MPH, an allergist and immunologist with Healthcare Partners Medical Group in Torrance, Calif. These are considered mild allergy symptoms. “But some also have a serious allergic reaction called anaphylaxis, meaning their throat closes and they have difficulty breathing or have abdominal pain, vomiting or diarrhea,” Dr. Davidson says. In addition, children who experience anaphylaxis may have a dangerously low drop in blood pressure. And anaphylaxis can lead to shock or, if left untreated, even death.

A Rise in Childhood Allergies: Why?

The hard question to answer isn’t if childhood allergies are on the rise, but why, Dr. Branum says. There are some leading theories, but no definitive answers.

One theory is the hygiene hypothesis, which states that our improved ability to clean and prevent germs has thrown our immune systems off balance. The immune system has two objectives: to fight infections and to fight allergens, says Matthew Greenhawt, MD, an allergist at the University of Michigan Allergy Clinic and an assistant professor in the division of allergy and immunology at the University of Michigan Health Center in Ann Arbor. Some experts hypothesize that because the infection-fighting system doesn’t have as much work to do, the system that fights allergens overcompensates.

What Parents Can Do About Childhood Allergies

If you suspect your child has an allergy, talk with his or her doctor. Your child’s doctor may refer you to an allergist, Dr. Greenhawt says. This specialist can perform various types of allergy testing and is trained in the best methods for treating allergies.

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