Allergies & Asthma

As many as one in four Americans suffer from allergies or asthma. Allergies can be seasonal (caused by pollen and mold), or they can be in response to food, medicines, insect bites, pet dander and many other causes.

For many people, allergies aren't simply the minor inconvenience of sneezing and itching, but rather a serious health issue that negatively impacts their daily lives. Allergies are the most frequently reported chronic condition in children, and asthma is the number one reason for kids chronically missing school.

What are allergies?

An allergy is an overreaction of the body's immune system. The immune system normally protects the body against harmful substances, such as bacteria and viruses. But in a person with allergies, the immune response is oversensitive. When an allergy-causing substance (an allergen) enters the body of someone with an allergy - whether swallowed, breathed in or through the skin - the body's immune system releases chemicals such as histamines to fight off the allergen. These chemicals are what cause the symptoms of allergies, which can range from sneezing, itching, watery eyes and congestion to swelling, muscle spasms, hives, rashes, coughing, tightness in the chest and tingling in the mouth. Allergy symptoms differ depending on the cause of the allergy and vary from person to person.

Are allergies hereditary?

Yes, but only in terms of one's likelihood of having allergies. A specific allergy is not usually passed down through families; however, if both parents have allergies, their children are likely to have allergies too. The chance is greater when the mother has allergies.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic disease that involves inflammation of the lungs. Normally, when a person breathes in an irritant or experiences a stressful activity such as exercise, the body's airways relax and open, allowing the lungs to get rid of the irritant or take in more air. But in a person with asthma, muscles in the airways tighten and the lining of the air passages swells, restricting airflow in and out of the lungs and making it hard to breathe. People with asthma pant and wheeze because of this restricted airflow. About 20 million Americans have asthma, including 9 million children. In fact, asthma is the most common chronic childhood illness.

How do allergies relate to asthma?

Allergies and asthma often occur together. Asthma triggered by allergies (allergic asthma) is the most common type of asthma in the United States. There is no cure for asthma or allergies, but the symptoms can be prevented and controlled.

How can I help my child who's suffering from allergies?

The most effective way to help is to shield your child from the allergen as best you can. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers these helpful tips:

  • Replace your furnace filters frequently, or install an electrostatic filter. A less expensive alternative is to use a room air purifier.
  • Vacuum and clean more often than you might otherwise do, especially in your child's bedroom. If possible, vacuum floors and furniture daily, and thoroughly houseclean at least once a week. Use a damp mop to clean up dust. If possible, avoid wall-to-wall carpeting in your home.
  • Keep animals with fur or feathers out of the house, even if your child has tested negative on scratch tests for animal allergies. Youngsters can easily develop sensitivity to animal danders.
  • Avoid products with strong odors like perfume, mothballs, tar, paints and camphor.
  • Do not smoke cigarettes in the house, the car or near your child - for the sake of your child's allergies and your own health.
  • Keep the doors and windows of your child's bedroom closed as much as possible, especially when the room is not being used.
  • Place plastic covers over mattresses and box springs. Use foam, not feather, pillows. Avoid fuzzy, dust-catching wool blankets or wool comforters. Choose a smooth-finished cotton or synthetic fabric bedspread.
  • Remove stuffed animals from your child's room.
  • Read the labels on medications, looking for ingredients that may have caused allergic reactions in the past.

To relieve or control symptoms, ask your child's doctor if it's safe to administer antihistamines or decongestants. You may also want to consider allergy shots. These injections carefully and gradually increase your child's exposure and resistance to the allergens. Over time, your child's symptoms should decrease in severity.

What should I do for my child with asthma?

Asthma attacks are scary for both children and their parents. Most importantly, make sure your child is being seen regularly by a pediatrician or other physician who can help you manage your child's asthma.

When an attack occurs, try to remove your child from the situation that triggered it: bring them inside away from the pollen, have them stop exercising, put the pets outside, etc. Administer any medications that your child's doctor prescribed, such as a handheld inhaler, and be sure to follow the instructions carefully, as the most common reason for medications not working is lack of proper administration.

When should I take my child to the doctor or ER?

Though it's very uncommon, hundreds of children do die from allergy or asthma attacks every year in the United States. That's why it's so important to be well-informed about your child's condition and vigilant about keeping their allergies or asthma under control. Food allergies, in particular, pose a significant danger to children. Make sure your child's caregivers, teachers, coaches, friends and friends' parents know about your child's condition and how to respond to it in an emergency situation.

In the case of allergies, when symptoms become extremely severe, your child could go into anaphylactic shock, an allergic response that involves various systems of the body and can be life-threatening if not treated quickly.

If your child comes into contact with an allergen (food, insect bite, etc.) and has some of the following symptoms, seek medical help immediately:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Swelling (particularly of the throat, face, lips or tongue)
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Unconsciousness
  • Hives, itching, tingling or redness
  • Tightness in the throat
  • Hoarseness or trouble speaking
  • Wheezing
  • Nausea, abdominal pain or vomiting

Anaphylaxis can happen within seconds of being exposed to an allergen or it can be hours later before any symptoms appear. If your child has an allergy that could lead to anaphylactic shock (80% of anaphylactic reactions are caused by peanuts or tree nuts), your doctor may encourage you to carry injectable epinephrine, also known as an EpiPen, with you at all times.

For children suffering from asthma, call your doctor immediately if:

  • Your child does not respond to the asthma medication.
  • Breathing is extremely difficult.
  • Your child's lips turn blue.
  • Your child cannot speak.
  • Your child begins vomiting.

For more information about allergies and asthma, check out these additional resources:

Allergy & Asthma Articles
Search in-depth information from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America
A not-for-profit organization founded in 1953, the AAFA is the leading patient organization for people with asthma and allergies, and the oldest asthma and allergy patient group in the world.

The Virtual Allergist
Find out more about your child's allergies or asthma with a virtual symptom checker from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

Pollen Forecast
See the daily pollen count for our area.

Kids & Allergies FAQs
The Weather Channel offers parents answers on seasonal and other allergies and how they affect their kids.

Games, Puzzles & More
Have your child check out these fun videos, storybooks, puzzles, games and other activities from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

Food Allergy Website Just for Kids
Your child can learn how to be safe with his or her food allergy with this fun website from the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network.