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5 common health problems in adolescence

Worrying about our kids’ health is part of being a parent. Learn the signs and symptoms of some of the most common adolescent health concerns – and when to reach out for support.

Coughs and colds, mild infections and gastro bugs are part of the parenting journey when it comes to adolescent and young adult health. Thankfully some rest often does the trick, and mild illnesses tend to pass quickly.

Sadly, though, some common health problems in adolescents can present more of a concern for parents. Knowing what to look out for in youngsters and when it’s time to seek help is important, and can give you extra peace of mind. Some of the more common health issues are:

  1. Allergies
  2. Eating disorders
  3. Obesity
  4. Asthma
  5. Eczema

Allergies in adolescents

People can be allergic to almost anything, but when we talk about allergies in adolescents and young adults it usually means food allergies, which affect 1 in 10 Aussie children.

According to Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia the most common food allergies are:

  • eggs
  • peanuts
  • tree nuts
  • cow’s milk.

Reactions to other foods like sesame, soy, shellfish, fish and some fruits are also common.

While some allergic reactions are mild, anaphylaxis – the most severe type – can be life-threatening. It’s usually triggered by foods, insect stings and some medications.

Signs of a severe allergic reaction or anaphylaxis can include:

  • difficulty or laboured breathing
  • wheezing and/or persistent coughing
  • swelling of the tongue and/or throat
  • dizziness or collapse
  • becoming pale and listless (in infants and young children).

Children at risk of anaphylaxis will most likely be prescribed an adrenaline injector, which they need to carry with them at all times.

Dr Nicole White, a GP with a special interest in paediatrics, says children are more likely to grow out of dairy allergies than nut allergies, but testing should be done under strict medical supervision.

“An allergist may retest your child every 6-12 months, and if they think it might be possible to reintroduce certain foods this will be done very gradually,” she explains.

If your child is having a severe allergic reaction, call 000. And if they have an adrenaline injector, the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy recommends using it immediately. Dr White agrees: “Autoinjectors aren’t dangerous, so if you think your child is having a severe allergic reaction you should use theirs,” she says.

Eating disorders in young adults

It’s difficult to put a number on how many people have eating disorders or disordered eating in Australia. However, eating disorders are becoming more common in young adults, with major hospitals in Sydney and Melbourne seeing an increase in cases in children as young as 12 and under.

This is reflected in Dr White’s practice, which specialises in women and children. “I’m seeing at least 2 cases per week of eating disorders in young people; it’s really ramped up over the past few months,” she says. “It’s hard to know why, although there seems to be a link to the pandemic and a higher than usual amount of stress and anxiety being experienced by younger people.”

The most common types of eating disorders are:

Although eating disorders tend to be associated with women and girls, people of all ages, genders and backgrounds can be affected. In fact, males make up more than a third of people experiencing the symptoms of eating disorders.

While sudden or prolonged weight loss, restricted eating, or sudden fussiness over food might indicate an eating disorder, Dr White says there are other warning signs.

“A sudden change in mood or behaviour – such as being withdrawn or losing interest in usual activities, or always wanting to skip dinner – can be an indicator,” she explains. “A child may suddenly become obsessed with calories or amounts of food, or restrict certain types or groups of food.”

Risk factors of developing an eating disorder can include:

  • a shock or trauma, such as witnessing an accident, the death of a loved one, or a sudden change in living or family situation
  • bullying or teasing at school
  • stress or strain relating to things like starting a new school, moving house, or doing well in exams
  • mental health or self-esteem challenges.

Your GP can recommend local services that can help. Nationally, the Butterfly Foundation has a helpline, email and online chat for anyone experiencing symptoms or looking to support a loved one with an eating disorder. It can also provide resources for family and friends.

Childhood obesity

Health Direct estimates 1 in 6 Aussie kids aged 4-15 are overweight, with 1 in 14 classified as obese. But although obesity is a common health issue for adolescents, it’s often tricky to tackle.

Research indicates that childhood obesity is increasing. According to Better Health Victoria, this can be explained at least partly by changes in lifestyle, including greater consumption of processed foods, combined with less physical activity, like sports and outdoor play.

While young people grow and develop at different speeds, it’s important to encourage an active lifestyle and healthy weight from childhood, to prevent health issues in later life.

Children often model their behaviour on what they see around them, so parents can help by eating a healthy, balanced diet themselves, and doing regular exercise.

Most Australian states and territories have government incentive programs that subsidise sports for kids, like:

In partnership with Ethos Health, our Healthy Families for Life support* is designed to encourage kids aged 0-12 years to develop positive nutritional habits for growth and development, reduce the risk of chronic conditions in their future and help parents role model healthy eating behaviours.

If you’re concerned about your child’s weight, you can reach out to the Healthy Families for Life team on 1800 531 891. Your GP can also recommend strategies and at-home programs. “We tend to recommend a whole-family, targeted approach,” says Dr White, who adds that a GP can connect families with dietitians and psychologists where necessary.

Asthma in children

According to Better Health Victoria, asthma – which affects the airways and causes difficulty breathing – is a top reason adolescents and young adults see their GP, miss school or go to hospital.

Asthma affects up to 10% of Aussie kids and varies from mild symptoms to life-threatening episodes. One Australian study found that 2 out of 3 children with mild, intermittent asthma will grow out of all symptoms by adulthood, but this varies according to the severity of symptoms and how often then occur.

Severe asthma attacks can be prevented if milder symptoms are treated quickly so it’s important parents and carers are aware of the early signs of an asthma attack – like shortness of breath, wheezing, prolonged coughing and chest pain – and your child has their treatment close by.

Common triggers of asthma include:

  • cold or flu
  • allergies
  • cold weather
  • exercise
  • cigarette smoke.

A GP can create an asthma action plan for your child. This may include treatment, and instructions for asthma first aid to help prevent a mild attack from becoming more serious – for example, making sure your child stays sitting up during a mild attack, and how many times to use treatment before seeking extra help.

“Common treatments are relievers, in the form of a Ventolin puffer, and preventers – also sometimes a puffer or in tablet form for certain ages, and sometimes in the case of exercise-induced asthma,” says Dr White. If your child is having difficulty breathing always call 000.

Asthma Australia has some great resources for parents.

Eczema in young people

One doesn’t necessarily lead to the other, but children with asthma have a greater chance of having eczema – an inflammation of the skin affecting 1 in 3 Aussie children.

Types of eczema include:

  • atopic dermatitis – the most common form of eczema, mostly affecting children and linked to both asthma and hay fever
  • contact dermatitis – occurs when the skin comes into contact with an irritant, like bleach, poisonous plants, or chemicals
  • dyshidrotic eczema – more common in women than men, this form of eczema has the appearance of small blisters on the hands and feet.

Symptoms may include:

  • extremely dry skin
  • red or inflamed patches of skin
  • weepy blisters
  • scabs on the skin.

The effects of eczema can be made worse by everyday things like hot water, soap, and even central heating. Treatments range from topical steroid ointments to ultraviolet radiation therapy.

“Our knowledge around how to treat eczema has improved over the years and we can now reassure parents that using steroid ointment is very safe when done properly,” says Dr White.

Eczema can be especially distressing for children. They’ll probably want to scratch the affected areas, which further damages the skin. Talk to your GP about the ways you can help your child live with eczema.

What can parents do to help young people experiencing health problems?

Thankfully, many common health problems in adolescents are often mild and quickly solved. And there’s help, advice and support available when more serious challenges occur.

Your GP can connect you with local resources and offer immediate help and next steps.

HCF members with hospital or extras cover have access to Calm Kid Central^, an online educational and support program helping kids aged 4-11 manage their big feelings and emotional challenges. The program provides confidential access to an experienced child psychologist who can answer your questions within 48 hours, as well as tools and resources to help you support your child.

You can also access Headspace, a national mental health resource for young adults and their families.

Words by Kerry McCarthy
First published March 2022

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