Immune System Response to Environmental Allergens

An allergy is an abnormal immune system reaction to a substance (allergen) found in the environment. Allergens are everywhere and include medication, pollen, pets, medication or certain types of food.

At Penn State Children’s Hospital, we take a caring, child-friendly approach to diagnosing and treating our patients with allergic conditions. Our expert team is committed to giving families the treatment and resources you need to keep your child safe, productive and happy. We see infants, children and adolescents with environmental, food, medication, stinging insect allergies and immune disorders.

Allergies Symptoms, Diagnosis and Outlook

An allergy is an immune response or reaction to certain substances. Many people have allergies that are not harmful; however, if you suspect your child is reacting to specific foods or environmental factors, schedule an appointment with the Penn State Children’s team.

Pediatric allergy symptoms depend on the part of the body that the allergen touches, such as:

  • Air: allergens you breathe in often cause a stuffy nose, itchy nose and throat, mucus and congestion, cough and wheezing
  • Eyes: allergens that touch the eyes may cause itchy, watery, red or swollen eyes
  • Food: if you eat something you are allergic to, it can cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, cramping, diarrhea or a severe life-threatening reaction
  • Medications: drug allergies usually involve the whole body and can lead to a variety of symptoms
  • Skin: allergens that touch the skin can cause a skin rash, hives, itching, blisters or skin peeling

The first step is to determine if your child has an allergy or if their symptoms are being caused by a different source, such as an infection or non-allergic reaction to a particular medication. Your child’s care team provider will perform a physical exam and medical history to determine when the symptoms occur.

Allergy testing may be needed to determine the source of your child’s symptoms. Skin testing is the most common method of allergy testing. One type of skin testing is the prick test, which involves placing a small amount of the suspected allergy-causing substances on the skin, and then slightly pricking the area so the substance moves under the skin. Your child’s skin is monitored for reaction signs, including swelling and redness. Other types of skin tests include patch testing and intradermal testing. Skin testing can be performed on small children and infants as well.

Most allergies can be treated easily with medication; however, once a substance has triggered an allergic reaction, it typically continues to affect the person. Some children outgrow their allergies, especially food allergies.

Our Experts in Care

The experts at Penn State Children’s Hospital are committed to providing our pediatric patients with comprehensive and multidisciplinary care.

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Why Choose Penn State Children's Hospital for Care

Specialized Pediatric Allergy Care

The Penn State Children’s Hospital allergy team includes physicians, nurse practitioners, nutritionists, social workers and respiratory therapists. Our experts have completed intensive pediatric allergy education and training, so you can be sure that your child is truly in expert hands. Our philosophy involves a multidisciplinary approach to care to help evaluate your child’s needs and accurately diagnose the source of their symptoms. We’re here to help your child feel better.

Child-friendly Focus

Our pediatric patients are often concerned about allergy testing being painful or uncomfortable. At the Penn State Children’s clinic, our approach is patient-centric and kid-friendly. We make our patients feel comfortable by:

  • Thoroughly explaining what we’re going to do so there are no surprises
  • Demonstrating the test on a parent or adult first, if necessary
  • Using distraction techniques such as sticker pages, coloring and blowing bubbles

Commitment to Educating Families

The Penn State Children’s Hospital allergy team is focused on education, whether it’s teaching families how to use an epinephrine auto-injector (such as an EpiPen) or how to create a food allergy action plan. Families receive handouts on how to handle your child’s particular condition, and we take the time to answer questions you may have and locate resources to help.

Customized Treatment Plans

We work closely with you and your child to create a treatment plan tailored to your child’s condition. Treatments for allergic conditions include avoidance, medication and desensitization (allergy shots). When evaluation or treatment involves needles, we do our best to minimize pain and discomfort. We offer a topical anesthetic for blood draws and an anesthetic spray for children receiving allergy shots.

On-Site Allergy Testing

For suspected environmental and food allergies, our pediatric patients receive skin testing in our on-site clinic. Allergy testing doesn’t involve needles and is not painful. Results are usually available within 15 minutes. Allergic reactions are identified through redness and swelling at the skin test site. Depending on your child’s history, additional lab tests may be ordered.

For suspected medication and stinging insect allergies, testing is not performed during your child’s first visit. Instead, we focus on history-taking and understanding your child’s background. A second appointment will be scheduled for specialized testing, which may include intradermal testing.

Children may outgrow food allergies. If we think that your child may no longer be allergic to a particular food, we may recommend doing an oral challenge at our clinic. During this test, your child will eat the food while being monitored by a doctor for safety.

Pediatric Allergy Shots

At Penn State Children’s, we are committed to finding the best treatment plan for your child. Allergy shots may need years of treatment, but they work in most cases. Allergy shots are most effective when used to treat environmental allergies (hay fever) and insect sting allergies. Allergy shots are not used to treat food allergies, as there is a danger of a severe reaction. Our allergy shot patients are closely monitored for side effects like hives and rashes, as well as dangerous outcomes like anaphylaxis. The Penn State Children’s team will work closely with you to determine if allergy shots are the right treatment path for your child.

Support Groups

Support groups provide children and their families an opportunity to connect with others in similar situations. Learn more about the support groups offered at Penn State Children’s Hospital.

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