Can infants have environmental allergies?

I have read your series on allergies. Nowhere in the series do you make any mention of the children's ages. I have a seven month old that is demonstrating allergic symptoms. Are there treatments available for children her age? She has the clear runny nose and itchy eyes. No fever is associated with her symptoms. What do you suggest?

There is every possibility that she has a summer cold. I have not ruled this out, and actually lean toward this explanation as her symptoms are not ongoing.



Robert Steele

Robert W. Steele, MD, is a board certified pediatrician at St. John's Regional Health Center in Springfield, MO. He graduated from medical... Read more

You raise an excellent question. There are families in which allergies are a problem in every member, so it seems like a logical assumption that when the child begins to have these symptoms, it could be allergies as well. Runny noses seem to be a constant in so many young children that it may seem like surely allergies must be the culprit. But while it is possible environmental allergies are playing a role in symptoms, it is rather unlikely if you consider how one becomes allergic in the first place.

As I mentioned in my first part of the allergy series, the allergic reaction begins with the body recognizing the foreign particle (called an allergen) through the use of special proteins called immunoglobulins (IgE). The body can make a very specific IgE protein for each specific allergen. However, if your body happens to not make IgE to that allergen, you are not allergic to it. But it doesn't have to be an all or nothing thing. If your body makes very little IgE to oak pollen, for example, when you are exposed to oak pollen the next time, you still may not have an allergic reaction because you simply didn't have enough IgE around.

However, each time you are exposed to oak pollen, the body makes more and more IgE to it. So, eventually you will have an allergic reaction to it once the IgE level is high enough.

How does this all tie into babies under one year of age? Well, babies have two strikes against them (or you could say for them) when it comes to developing allergy symptoms. One is that their immune system is not fully functioning, so the IgE they have does not necessarily work as well as older children and adults. Secondly, they have not been alive long enough to be exposed to the allergens, become sensitized, and produce enough IgE to cause symptoms. Most grass and pollens are seasonal, so to first become sensitized and then have symptoms, you have to have gone through 2 seasons. There are many allergens that can be around year-long such as cat dander, molds, and dust mite. However, it still takes time to build up enough IgE to have allergic reactions, and one year is generally not enough.

Now, there are unquestionably exceptions to this rule. Certain children have a predisposition to developing allergies at a very early age. These would include those with the skin condition called eczema or those with a very strong family history of asthma or allergies.

I would suggest to you that your suspicion of a summer cold is more likely right on the money. That doesn't mean your daughter couldn't have allergies, but it is far more unlikely. Time will tell because you would expect her symptoms from a cold to subside in about a week or two.

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