By Andrew MacGinnitie, MD, PhD, associate clinical director of the Division of Immunology at Children’s Hospital Boston
As the days get longer and warmer, most people’s thoughts turn to baseball, barbecues and breaking out their summer clothes. It’s a carefree time for many, but as an allergist spring is my busy season. In the northeast trees pollinate first, which means many allergy sufferers notice symptoms as early as April. (After an unseasonably warm winter like this one, it can happen even earlier.) Grass pollen season arrives in the late spring and continues through June. Ragweed is the dominant fall allergen and is typically present from August until the first hard freeze.
Because allergies and colds share symptoms many parents have a hard time telling the two apart. Both allergies and colds (also known as viral infections) can lead to runny noses, nasal congestion and sneezing. But the main difference between the two is that colds tend to last only for a few days, where allergy symptoms last for much longer. Allergies also tend to cause an itchiness or irritation in the eyes and nose, and colds typically don’t. So if your child’s sneezing and sniffling lasts for more than a week and his eyes and nose are itching he most likely has seasonal allergies and not a cold.
When they’re not being mistaken for colds, seasonal allergies are often called “hay fever” but that’s a misleading term— allergies won’t cause a fever and hay is not a cause. But despite those inaccuracies, hay fever is a pretty telling description considering how miserable allergies can make you feel. Depending on how severe a person’s allergies are, their symptoms can be as bad (or worse) than the flu. Studies show that during pollen season school attendance and performance for children with allergies suffers significantly.
It can be a difficult time of year for many children and their parents, but taking medication and avoiding allergy triggers can make it far more bearable. Here are few tips to limit your child’s allergy symptoms:
- Keep your windows closed and run an air conditioner, even if it’s not overly warm outside. Air conditioners filter new air into a room and help minimize pollen levels inside the house. Humidifiers and non-ionic air purifiers can also help reduce pollen counts indoors and make breathing easier for kids with allergies.
- Children who are sensitive to pollen should shower and change clothes after playing outside. This extra step keeps pollen that may get stuck in their hair or clothes from getting into the inside air or on their pillow where it can irritate the child all night long. Pollen counts are also lowest during or right after it rains, making that an ideal time for outdoor play for young children with allergies.
- Vacuum your carpets, and wash your child’s linens weekly. Pollen can easily hide within the fibers and because the child is likely to have them close to her face they can trigger allergies if not properly clean. Also, dust mites, a common cause of year round allergies, can live in linens and toys.
- Wash your pets often, especially if they spend time both inside and outside. Some people are allergic to pet hair, but some are simply allergic to the pollen that collects on their fur. By keeping your animals pollen free you may be able to reduce your family’s pollen exposure
- Clean any mold in the house with a diluted bleach solution. Like pollen, mold is a prime allergy trigger. Using a dehumidifier in damp basements or bathrooms can inhibit mold growth.
In addition to avoiding pollen, mold and other known allergy triggers, taking over-the-counter medicines like loratadine, cetitrizine and fexofenadine (formerly brand names of Claritin, Zyrtec and Allegra) are a big help for many patients. And unlike many first-generation drugs used to treat allergies, modern day medications don’t cause sleepiness.
For children whose allergies are so severe that avoidance and over-the-counter drugs aren’t enough, a prescription for nasal steroids may be in order. In some cases it’s also possible that a series of shots that can actually “re-educate” a person’s immune system and teach it not to reject pollen. Ask an allergist if your child’s seasonal allergies are serious enough for these specialized treatments, but if they’re like most children they may prefer their allergies to a round of shots!
Does your child suffer from seasonal allergies? If so Children’s experts are here to help. With increased coverage at our satellite locations in Weymouth and Peabody – along with our Lexington, Waltham and Boston locations – allergy sufferers will be able to get an appointment with one of our allergy clinics, often within 24 hours.
Visit our Allergy and Asthma program website or call 617-355-6117 or 888-IWHEEZE to make an appointment.