It’s the time of year for seasonal allergies. It’s also still, unfortunately, the time of year for “colds.” Although it may be intuitive for many parents to decipher the causes of symptoms in their child during the month of May, some of us have a hard time determining what’s causing our children to wipe their nose!
In general, it’s time unfolding that helps us know if our children are beginning to suffer from allergies as opposed to another cold. If steady,unwavering symptoms of runny nose, coughing, sneezing, and/or itchy eyes persist longer than a week this time of year, allergies to pollens are likely be blame –with one caveat– if your child is a toddler seasonal allergies are far less likely. Although there are exceptions to every rule, most children don’t start to develop hay fever symptoms until around age 3 or 4 years of age after their bodies have been exposed to a few seasonal changes and pollen counts and their body starts to mount an over-reaction. Allergy symptoms are created when the body basically over-does-it to triggers (allergens) and starts an immune response to a normally harmless particle. Instead of having no response to a dandelion, for example, allergic people rapidly release a series of chemicals (including histamines) after encountering the flower that cause their eyes to itch and run, their mucus membranes to swell, and their airways sometimes to cough. There’s no sure-fire, singular way to know at first glance if your child has seasonal allergies when they start sneezing in the spring (or fall) but in general children will suffer from a constellation of symptoms and a set of circumstances:
What Is “Hay Fever” And Why Does It Happen?
- Hay fever is the most common allergy in Americans and represents the allergic reaction to pollens in the air & environment. Seasonal allergy sufferers see symptoms at particular times of year when specific allergic triggers (grass or tree pollen, for example) circulate. However, some children and adults can have allergies to more than one pollen or trigger, thus having symptoms at various times throughout the year. Most children who suffer from hay fever feel a noted shift in symptoms around the same time each year though, i.e. “during T-ball season Oliver always needs his allergy meds.”
- Typically seasonal allergies are first seen after the preschool years although they can develop at any time during childhood, usually before age 10. Symptoms of allergies commonly change with age, peaking in severity when people are in their 20’s, and then often subsiding as adults age.
- Allergies do tend to run in families. If one parent has allergies, there’s a 25% chance a child will too! And if your child is lucky enough to have two sneezers for parents, the risk of developing allergies soars to over 60%.
Medications To Treat Seasonal Allergies
- The most commonly used over-the-counter meds for allergy symptoms are antihistamines. Typical antihistamine ingredients found in over-the-counter (OTC) medications include diphenhydramine, loratadine, cetirizine, or chlorpheniramine. The most commonly used medications for children tend to be the antihistamines that are designed to be “non-sedating” (loratadine, cetirizine).
- OTC meds for allergies should only be used for children 6 and up. If you child is younger than age 6 and you’re concerned about allergy symptoms, talk with their pediatrician about best first medications and best first dose.
- Don’t use allergy meds to sedate your child for convenience. I mean, really — it’s not an indication for antihistamines. Here’s a post on why I feel children shouldn’t be drugged with antihistamines that I wrote back in 2009.
What Parents Need To Know
- One in 5 Americans have allergies at some point in their life so allergies and over-reacting immune systems are a part of many families. Hay fever is the most common allergy in America and can easily be treated with avoidance to allergens (take a shower when you get home from the park and wipe those pollen allergens off!), OTC medications, and sometimes additional prescription medications. Most children with hay fever only need allergy medicines during seasonal bursts.
- Often allergy symptoms change with age; allergy symptoms can accelerate during young childhood and often subside as adults age. Talk with your child’s nurse or physician if you’re concerned about their trend.
- Read medication labels for ingredients in allergy medications. Use the lowest dose possible to treat symptoms and talk with your child’s clinician if they are under age 6 before doing a trial of an OTC antihistamine.
This post was written in partnership with OTC Safety.org. In exchange for our ongoing partnership helping families understand how to use OTC (over-the-counter) meds safely they have made a contribution to Digital Health at Seattle Children’s for our work in innovation. I adore the OTC Safety tagline, “Treat yourself and your family with care all year long.” Follow @OTCSafety #OTCSafety for more info on health and wellness.
ginny woo says
This article is so timely. Trying to determine if my son (age 3) is experiencing allergies or a cold. He has been tested and is allergic to dust mites, dogs, and cashews. But this week his nose seems to be more extreme and I’ve been wondering if we need to add “seasonal allergies” to the list. Runny nose, runny eyes, one eye swollen. I ended up giving him benadryl on top of allegra one day because he seemed so miserable (it helped greatly!) I’ve always heard that colds can have a yellow discharge but for allergies it’s always clear…is there truth to that? His has been both the past few days.
Yeah, my child gets sleepy when administered with antihistamine particularly Cetrizine. My Doc advised Levocetrizine as it has less sedative effects. However, your insights into the problem of proper diagnosis deserve a special mention as this is a well-researched article. Kudos!
Mary Alison Koehnke,ND says
Great article! It can be so difficult for parents (and doctors!) to determine if a child has allergies or a cold, especially this time of year. So important that antihistamines be used properly and under the supervision of a physician (and most importantly, are used for the proper reason).