If your kid starts sniffling and sneezing, you may think it’s another cold he picked up at school. But if he always seems to get sick this time of year, seasonal allergies could be the culprit.
“Symptoms between a cold and allergies can be similar, but kids with a virus look and act sick, and they may have a fever and body aches,” says Feryal Hajee, MD, an allergist at Metropolitan Asthma and Allergy in Little Silver. “With allergies, kids feel okay generally, but symptoms persist beyond the typical 10 days that a virus lasts.”
If you and your pediatrician suspect your child is an allergy sufferer, here’s how to survive the season:
MANAGE THE SYMPTOMS
“Allergies can start at any age,” says Peter Baum, MD, an allergist at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago. “Hay fever or allergies to seasonal pollen tend to flare in spring and fall. Typically, kids have sneezing, a drippy nose, itchy eyes or nose and congestion.” Kids who can’t breathe well also don’t sleep well, so it’s important to deal with symptoms with a variety of medications and environmental controls.
There are many different over-the-counter (OTC) options. “There’s no ‘best’ drug,” says Hajee. “Every child is different, so if one doesn’t seem to help, try another medication.” Generally, the non-drowsy antihistamines are Claritin and Allegra; everything else can cause sleepiness. If you’re worried your kid will drift off in class, try antihistamines at night or start them on a weekend—kids often adjust to the drowsiness in a few days.
ADD A NASAL SPRAY
Nasal steroid sprays, such as Nasacort and Flonase, are OTC medications that can be used to reduce dripping and congestion, and it’s fine to use them along with antihistamines. “It’s best to begin using nasal sprays about two weeks before allergy symptoms usually start because it takes these medications time to be effective,” says Baum. Kids can also use OTC saline nasal sprays to rinse sinuses after being outdoors. There are no side effects, so saline can be squirted multiple times a day to flush out inhaled pollen, says Hajee.
TARGET THE PROBLEM
Avoid using multi-symptom medications, which often have acetaminophen or ibuprofen in them. “You want to treat only the symptoms your child has,” says Hajee. “Plus, you want to know when your child is sick, and you’ll mask that with acetaminophen.” If your child has itchy eyes, add OTC antihistamine eye drops, such as Zaditor.
WATCH OUT FOR WHEEZING
If your child begins dry coughing or wheezing during pollen season, especially while playing sports, call your pediatrician. “That’s a sign it could be allergic asthma or bronchitis, and it needs to be investigated,” says Hajee.
KEEP THE POLLEN OUTSIDE
Although it’s a bummer now that the weather’s warming up, keep your windows closed in the house and car, says Baum. Run your AC instead, and change your filters regularly. Try to keep your kid indoors between 10 am and 4 pm when pollen levels are highest. Track pollen counts on the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology website.
HAVE YOUR CHILD CHANGE INTO CLEAN CLOTHES
Get your kids in the habit of removing school clothes or sports uniforms at the door and changing when they come home, says Hajee. It’s also a good idea to have them brush their hair and wash their faces to reduce the pollen they’re bringing indoors. Before bed, make sure they shower and wash their hair so they’re not breathing in pollen overnight. For an extra measure of control, change pillowcases at least a couple of times a week.
WIPE DOWN PETS
Dogs and cats can carry pollen on their fur. Brush them or use a damp towel to pull pollen from their coats and feet every time they come back indoors, says Hajee.
DON’T QUIT UNTIL POLLEN SEASON PASSES
If OTC medications and environmental measures keep your child’s symptoms at bay, that’s great! It’s okay to keep using them until pollen counts drop in NJ, typically in the first or second week of June.
SEE AN ALLERGIST IF SYMPTOMS PERSIST
Every subsequent year, allergy symptoms tend to get worse. Besides being miserable, kids with uncontrolled allergies are more susceptible to secondary colds or ear infections, says Hajee. If your kid isn’t getting relief from OTC medications or their allergies seem to be getting worse, an allergist can pinpoint the source and suggest a treatment plan. Prescription medications and immunotherapy (a series of shots that gradually desensitizes the immune system to an allergen) may be options. An oral immunotherapy medication for kids is also available for the treatment of grass allergies.