Ah, spring. The season of blooming flowers, warm days, and for many—achoo!—snuffling and sneezing. If you spend your days combatting seasonal allergies, there’s a good chance your kids may develop the same symptoms. “Anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of adults and children have allergic rhinitis [hayfever],” says Todd A. Mahr, M.D., chair of the section of Allergy & Immunology at the American Academy of Pediatrics. “And it can be passed down genetically. A child with one allergic parent has about a 25 percent chance of developing allergies; if two parents are allergic, that goes up to about 60 percent.” A family history of asthma can also dramatically raise a child’s risk for allergies.
So what should moms and dads do for a child with spring allergies? We spoke with Mahr, as well as Jacqueline S. Eghrari-Sabet, M.D., an allergist in Gaithersburg, Md., to gather their smart advice for parents.
Rule #1: Don’t assume your child is too young for allergies.
“We classically start to see seasonal allergies develop in preschool or early elementary school—around ages 3 ½ to 7—although they can appear as early as age two or well into adulthood,” says Mahr. And don’t forget that a long-distance move can trigger allergies that might not have been obvious before.
Rule #2: Don’t try to guess what’s causing your child’s symptoms.
“The only detective work you should be doing at home is to keep track of your own family history of allergies or asthma, and to monitor your child’s symptoms,” says Eghrari-Sabet. “You can’t determine whether your child has allergies—or what he or she is allergic to—on your own. Only an allergist can give you the definitive diagnosis.” If your child has repeated bouts of what seem like allergies—runny nose, congestion, eyes that are itchy, red, watering, or swollen—or he or she has a history of ear infections or eczema, see a specialist.
Rule #3: Be smart about avoiding allergy triggers.
“Environmental control is usually the first line of treatment—but doing it effectively requires knowing exactly what your child is allergic to,” says Eghrari-Sabet. Translation: Don’t go ripping up the carpet unless you know your child is allergic to dust mites, and don’t get rid of the cat unless you know he’s allergic to pet dander. Once you’ve got a clear diagnosis of your child’s allergy triggers, your doctor can help you figure out smart strategies to avoid them. For example:
• Avoid letting your child play outside when pollen counts are highest, usually early in the morning.
• Don’t open the windows in your child’s bedroom—use the A/C instead.
• Keep pets out of your child’s room, and wash your hands after playing with a pet. Even if your child isn’t allergic to dogs, Fido could have still been rolling around in the grass and then transfer pollen to your child.
• Use dust mite covers on your child’s bedding.
• Have your child take a shower and change clothes after an afternoon spent playing outside.
Rule #4: Don’t be afraid to ask about medication.
Many parents are hesitant to put their kids on medication, but “there are many allergy drugs, like antihistamines or intranasal steroids, that are approved for children, even young children,” says Mahr. And keep in mind that allergies aren’t just a nuisance. “Children with allergies are more likely to miss sleep, miss school, and develop chronic ear infections, asthma, even language delays because constant congestion can affect your hearing,” says Eghrari-Sabet. “Yes, you want to use the least amount of medication possible at the lowest dose possible, but we also have to consider a child’s quality of life and cognitive function.” Mahr adds that it’s often most beneficial to start a child on medication prior to allergy season, rather than once symptoms are full-throttle, so don’t delay seeing a specialist if you suspect your child needs help.
Rule #5: Consider allergy shots.
“Many parents turn to allergy shots [also known as allergen immunotherapy] because they don’t want their child to be on medication long-term, or they find that medication isn’t providing a lot of relief,” says Eghrari-Sabet. The treatment works by exposing your child to gradually increasing doses of an allergen, in order to help the body’s immune system build up a tolerance to the substance and lessen the allergic reaction. “The full course of treatment usually lasts somewhere between three and five years, but the majority of that time your child is only receiving one shot per month,” says Eghrari-Sabet. “And at the end, allergy symptoms have greatly diminished or even disappeared.” Bonus: According to Eghrari-Sabet, insurance providers generally provide more coverage for allergy shots than for medication. And the treatment can help reduce your child’s risk of developing asthma, which often goes hand-in-hand with seasonal allergies.