As your kiddo’s sniffling and sneezing like crazy, it can be hard to decipher whether it’s just a common cold (or other upper respiratory virus) that will soon pass, or if it’s the product of seasonal allergies (sometimes called “hay fever” or “seasonal allergic rhinitis”) that may need treatment.
Seasonal allergies can start at almost any time (although kids usually develop them by 10 years old and experience the worst symptoms in their early 20s, with symptoms often going away later in adulthood). But even kids who’ve never had seasonal allergies before can suddenly develop them out of the blue.
So here are some clues to help you and your child’s doctor figure out what’s going on.
Symptoms for both allergies and the common cold can include a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, fatigue and coughing, so it’s easy to confuse the two. In addition to those other signs, tell-tale symptoms of allergies can also include watery, itchy and/or red eyes, as well as itchy nose and/or throat. (If there’s also wheezing and/or shortness of breath, the allergy may have progressed to become asthma.)
The common cold can also include muscle aches headache, loss of appetite and a mild fever.
Sometimes, though, it’s not clear which is which based on the symptoms alone since both affect different people in different ways.
The season or weather
With seasonal allergies, when people are allergic to mold spores or pollen their immune systems treat these particles (called “allergens”) as invaders. The body releases chemicals (including histamine) into the bloodstream to defend against them — and this causes allergy symptoms. People can be allergic to one or more types of pollen or mold. The type someone is allergic to determines when symptoms occur, since different allergens are in the air during different seasons.
Seasonal allergens include:
Mold: These tiny spores can travel the air most of the year except wintertime.
Grass: Grass pollen may lead to spring or summer sneezes with high counts that last the longest.
Tree: Even from miles away, trees release large amounts of pollen in the spring or early summer.
Weed: With the most potent pollen, weeds can trigger allergies in the fall.
Some kids are affected not just by changes in seasons, but also by changes in weather patterns in general — e.g., some are allergic to molds caused by periods of heavy rain.
The bottom line: If the weather at any time of year seems to affect the symptoms, then seasonal allergies are probably the culprit.
Although common colds are annoying, they typically won’t last for more than a week or two, whereas seasonal allergies can last for months.
OK, so I think it’s probably allergies. What do I do now?
1. Talk to your child’s primary care doctor.
Your doctor should be able to make a diagnosis after a physical exam and asking about symptoms and when they appear(ed). If not, your doctor may refer you to an allergist for blood or allergy skin tests to determine exactly what your child is and isn’t allergic to. Even if a test shows an allergy (or allergies), your child must also have symptoms in order to be definitively diagnosed with an allergy.
2. Monitor outside play time.
If your child has severe seasonal allergies, limit the amount of time spent outside during peak seasonal allergen times. Pollen counts are usually higher in the morning and on warm, dry, breezy days. They’re often lowest when it’s chilly and wet outside. When mold or pollen counts are high, plan to have indoor play time. And if you need to go outside, have your child take allergy medication before venturing out.
During spring, many weather services monitor pollen and mold spore levels — check out local news stations’ website or broadcast, or look to weather sites or apps. You can also go to Weather.com for maps showing current counts for:
3. Get the allergens out!
Just like peanuts should be kept away from kids who are allergic to them, seasonal allergies should be treated the same way. Start by trying to get the allergen(s) out of your house:
• Run the air conditioner, if possible (to remove excess air moisture, filter out pollens from the outside, and provide air circulation throughout your home). And make sure to clean out air conditioner filters once a month.
• Close windows and doors during pollen season to keep allergens from coming in.
• Have kids change their clothes or bathe after playing outside, so as not to bring any allergens inside.
And let kids with seasonal allergies skip mowing the lawn or weed wacking (no doubt they’ll be devastated).
Allergens also need to be removed from the body, which is easier said than done. When we breathe in air with pollen or ragweed in it, it stays in our noses until it’s removed. So if your child breathed in pollen and is allergic, the allergen is sitting in the nasal passages, continuing to cause problems. Kids need to blow their noses regularly and thoroughly to clear out allergens.
Some people like to use a neti pot or nasal wash, which are nasal irrigation methods that “flush” out the nose with saline water and take the allergens with it. Just be sure to follow all directions for proper use and cleaning, and talk to your child’ doctor to make sure these products are appropriate for your child.
4. Treat the symptoms.
Even with these preventative methods, your child will probably still be affected by seasonal allergies, but the symptoms can be treated. If allergies are left untreated, your child can experience chronic nasal congestion, sleep apnea (periods of paused breathing during sleep), asthma and a higher susceptibility to respiratory infections like bronchitis.
If reducing exposure doesn’t do much or isn’t possible, medicines like decongestants, antihistamines and nasal spray steroids can help relieve allergy symptoms. In some cases, doctors may recommend allergy shots (this is called “immunotherapy”) when control measures and medications don’t work.