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This recent study, which followed almost 600 children between the ages of one and seven, examined allergy symptoms in children who had gotten skin tests at ages one, two, three, four, and seven and had the parents of these children complete behavioral assessments. The behavioral assessments included 160 questions aimed at identifying anxiety and depression in children. These questions related to children’s emotions and behaviors that may have demonstrated fear, nervousness, worry, or sadness. Based on the data, researchers concluded that that four year olds suffering from classic allergy symptoms, such as itchy eyes, sneezing, wheezing, and skin inflammation, are more likely to be depressed or anxious than seven year olds with the same symptoms.
Though the results of the study appear robust, controlling for several patient factors, including gender and race, they do not provide clarification on why the association between allergies and anxiety and depression exists. The researchers speculate that allergies could cause chemical changes in the brain in areas involved in mood, thereby leading to anxiety and depression. However, they also acknowledge that anxiety and depression in this group may simply be due to the impact allergies have on their lives. For instance, often feeling sick and having to get shots or take medications may be the culprit for increased anxiety and depression in these children.
Regardless of the specific reasons that young children with allergies are more likely to develop anxiety and depression than those without such allergies, researchers believe that when anxiety and depression do occur, it is linked to the children’s tendency to ‘internalize.’ Internalizing behavior involves directing feelings inward. People who internalize tend to inflict harm on themselves when they are frustrated or upset rather than externalizing, and taking their emotions out on others. Specific internalizing behaviors include substance abuse, overeating, and anorexia. Certain groups of youths are more likely to display internalizing behaviors. For instance, both bullies and those being bullied are more likely to internalize. Youths who are obese are also at a higher risk for internalizing behavior. Because internalizing tends to be more socially acceptable than externalizing, it can go unnoticed as a problem for long periods of time.
Given the important role of internalizing in anxiety and depression among those with allergies, some physicians now advise that children who suffer from allergies should be monitored for behavioral issues, as well as signs of anxiety and depression. More research on the reason that those with allergies suffer from anxiety and depression at a more frequent rate than those without allergies will help clarify what specific risk factors predispose children to these disorders. New information should also help parents ensure that their children get proper treatment for their allergies while minimizing the likelihood that they develop anxiety or depression.