Introduction The links between allergen exposure and sensitization are complex and depend not only on the type of allergen but on various genetic and environmental factors. Areas covered This review discusses the link between allergen exposure and atopic sensitization for different types of allergens and the factors that mediate or affect this link. For the purposes of this review search of PubMed was undertaken to identify English language articles using the terms 'sensitization' and 'allergen exposure' and 'children/or adolescents.' Expert opinion Regarding food sensitization, the available data for peanuts and eggs suggest that there is a window period between 4 and 6 months of age when the introduction of these foods may limit sensitization and clinically overt allergy to the respective foods. As far as it concerns aeroallergens, it seems that there is a complex and variable relationship between mite exposure and specific sensitization especially if the exposure occurs early in life. Early exposure to dog allergens does not seem to be associated with specific sensitization; regarding cats, the results are still inconsistent. Several factors may mediate the relationship between early exposure to allergens and the development of sensitization or clinical allergy.