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When Spring Allergies Strike

Erin Mantz
April 14, 2011

When Heidi Dross of Gaithersburg, Md. woke her son Eli up for his preschool field trip to the National Gallery of Art, her mind was on making the bus.  Instead, she got a fright. The four-year-old's eyes were completely swollen.  She had an inkling - call it good old-fashioned mother's intuition - that it was spring allergies.  

"It came out of nowhere," Dross says.  "The previous year, he'd shown no allergy symptoms."

Across the country, parents like Dross struggle to alleviate spring allergy suffering for their kids.  April finally ushers in spring weather - the blooming bushes, sunnier days and causes for some serious sneezing.  Spring allergies affect as many as 60 million Americans, or one in every five adults and children.  Pollens are one common cause of allergies that result in congestion, sneezing and wheezing, itchy eyes, skin irritation, redness, and more.  If your child has allergies, he may have one or all of these symptoms.  And you may mistakenly think it's a cold.

What Spring Allergies Are All About

Spring allergies are environmental allergies - your child's body has a hyperactive response to things in the air that normally should not bother him.  For example, each spring, trees and grasses are pollinating culprits.  "If your son has a pollen allergy, think of pollen as an 'invader' and understand his body is reacting to that invader," explains Dr. Rachel L. Schreiber, MD, FAAAAI, Medical Director of the Family HealthCare Allergy & Asthma Specialists in Germantown, Md.  

Timing Seasonal Allergies

The spring allergy season varies according to where you live, but in the Washington, DC area, where Dr. Schreiber works, patients start appearing in late Feb, when the trees start pollinating.  Tree pollens peak around mid April and then grass season starts and peaks around Memorial Day.  By the end of June, spring pollens have decreased, and most people feel better.  However, Ragweed starts mid August and will go until the first frost, so kids allergic to weed pollens like this one aren't better just yet.

Signs & Symptoms of Allergies in Kids

Is your child itching his eyes or nose, or complaining about a tickling in his throat?  Parents may notice more sneezing, puffy eyes, a runny and stuffy nose, or itchy rashes.  And asthma can be triggered in some kids.  It can be challenging to tell if your child is suffering from allergies or a stubborn cold, but here are some hints: Colds can cause a fever.  Seasonal allergies will not. With colds, kids usually have discolored nasal drainage; with allergies, the drainage is clear. If parents are concerned, they should talk with their pediatrician or allergist.

At What Age Do Allergies Show Up in Kids?

Infants will not have pollen allergies; they need to be exposed to several pollen seasons before they develop a reaction to those pollens.  What surprises some parents is their allergy-free toddler can turn into an allergic kindergartener.  It can happen.

Should You Medicate Kids' Allergies?

You know what it's like to have a cold at work.  That's how kids feel too - except they are trying to concentrate at school or play sports, and they just feel lousy.  To make it worse (for the whole family!) allergies can hinder a good night's sleep.

Here's what you can do:

Check allergy reports.  Go to The National Allergy Bureau  and sign up to have local pollen and mold counts sent to your email.

  • Shower at night.  Allergies may be worse in the evening, especially after kids have been playing outside.  Make sure he takes a shower or bath to wash pollen off before bedtime.
  • Consult a pediatrician or allergist.  Explore if and which medications are necessary.  Antihistamines are a mainstay of allergy treatment, and many are available over the counter (OTC).  There are other medications your physician may prescribe, including eye drops, nasal sprays, and other oral medications.
  • Consider natural remedies.  Grape juice and nasal washes are some natural treatments parents try to relieve symptoms.  Another home remedy? Raw, local honey.  The theory is that honey made within 20 miles of the home introduces allergens from the child's immediate environment, gradually vaccinating the body against allergens.  Talk to your doctor before trying.  And Dr. Schreiber emphasizes children should never have unpasteurized honey -- and a child under one should never eat honey in general. 

Tips for Nannies Handling Allergies

Parents can prep their nanny or caregiver on what to watch for to help keep allergic kids comfortable and safe, explains Ron Ferdman, MD, Attending Physician in the Division of Clinical Immunology and Allergy at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.  "If there are any signs of difficulty breathing - such as prolonged coughing, inability to catch one's breath, or wheezing - these are signs that a more serious condition, such as asthma, may be occurring.  If these symptoms develop, the child should stop playing outside and go inside and rest.  If there is not prompt resolution of symptoms, or if this occurs more than once, the caregiver/parent should contact the child's physician," he says.  Caregivers should also watch for any swelling of the face - such as lips, eyes and especially the tongue - and be on guard if the child has a sensation his throat is swelling or tightening, because these are signs of a severe allergic reaction and they should get immediate medical attention.

Allergy Trends and Myths

Like articles and news stories about food allergies, spring allergy seems to be a topic on the rise.  According to Dr. Schreiber, allergies in general, whether environmental (including pollen) or food-focused, are on the rise.  Perhaps it's due to more awareness or the 'hygiene hypothesis' which theorizes that our cleaner society leads to less active immune cells.

As more parents search for solutions, some myths spread.  One is that over the counter decongestant nasal sprays are addictive.  They are not truly addictive; the brain will not become addicted to them.  However, use for longer than a few days can cause rebound congestion.  In other words, your child's little nose becomes less sensitive to the medication, and needs more and more of it to work.  If you feel he needs a nasal spray, talk to his doctor about prescription nasal sprays that are more appropriate for long term use.

Four years after Heidi Dross saw those puffy eyes, her (now) 9-year old son takes prescription liquid allergy medicine and nasal spray once a day and prescription eye drops twice a day.  They have tried several different regimens of medication and none have been very successful.  He has no complaints about all the medication, just about the spring.  He still says inside for recess some days or asks the school nurse for a cold compress for his eyes, so Dross is still looking to alleviate his symptoms even more.  This season, she is hoping her son gets more relief so he can enjoy soccer season.  If not, he'll start allergy shots in April.

* This article is for general informational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be providing medical advice and is not a substitute for such advice. The reader should always consult a health care provider concerning any medical condition or treatment plan.  Neither Care.com nor the author assumes any responsibility or liability with respect to use of any information contained herein.

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