The change in seasons is often accompanied by sniffling, sneezing, itchy eyes and coughing. After a winter of cold viruses, it can be difficult to tell if the symptoms your child is experiencing in spring and summer are due to allergies, a cold virus or both. One way to distinguish between allergies and a cold is understanding how most cold viruses start and how long they last. Although there are many types and strains of cold viruses present in most parts of the U.S., the more severe ones tend to:
* Start off with your child feeling unusually tired and developing a sore throat and a fever (2 to 3 days).
* Then the nasal congestion, postnasal drip and cough or sneezing develop and peak (4 to 7 days).
* By 10 to 12 days most cold viruses get better.
Seasonal allergies differ from cold viruses in two important ways:
* They don’t start with a fever.
* They last much longer than a cold, often for the month or two that the allergen is in the air.
Understanding Seasonal Allergies
Children can develop seasonal allergies at any point, although it’s uncommon before their first birthday because their bodies need to live through at least one year of seasons to develop the allergy. The seasonal allergy occurs when a tree, grass, weed pollen or outdoor mold triggers a reaction that releases histamine (and other body chemicals), causing swelling, itching and watery drainage or mucus — mostly in the eyes and nose. The result tends to be sneezing, rubbing the eyes and nose, sniffling, postnasal drip and sometimes coughing. This is commonly referred to as hay fever (even though it has nothing to do with a fever), and medically as allergic rhinitis.
These symptoms can make it difficult to sleep, causing daytime fatigue and difficulty concentrating in school. For children with asthma, these seasonal allergies can be strong triggers that can lead to serious asthma symptoms. Some children can be allergic to just a few pollens during one season, while others can be allergic to many pollens during all the allergy seasons.
The timing of an allergy season depends on the area in which you live. Your spring season starts with trees budding and your summer season with grass pollinating. Your fall season begins as summer starts to fade, and can continue until the winter freeze.
Seasonal Allergy Treatment
The treatment of choice for any allergy is avoidance, but with pollen floating around, it’s not so simple. It can be helpful to remember that in order for pollen to cause the allergic reaction, it has to stay in direct contact with the eyes or the lining of the nose. Washing hands, face and hair (especially before bedtime) and using saline solution designed for nasal or sinus flushing can help remove pollen and minimize the allergic reaction. Keeping bedroom windows closed so pollen doesn’t blow in the house also helps.
Despite taking these precautions, your child may need medications. The most common seasonal allergy medications are available over-the-counter (OTC) and include non-sedating antihistamines, allergy eye drops and nasal steroid sprays. Each of these is designed to reduce the swelling, itching and drainage caused by the allergy reaction. If your child develops these symptoms during an allergy season, especially if it has happened around the same time in previous years, it’s reasonable to consult your provider to discuss the best options to treat your child’s symptoms and to try these OTC products.
If your child is still having symptoms, make an appointment with your provider for a comprehensive assessment, including potential options for prescription medication and allergy testing. Knowing exactly what your child is allergic to can help guide efforts to minimize exposure and to use the right medications at the right times of the year.
Michael Corjulo, APRN, CPNP, AE-C, has been a PNP since graduating from the Yale School of Nursing in 1998 and a certified asthma educator since 2003. He is a PCP with Children’s Medical Group in Hamden, CT, the Health Coordinator for the ACES school system in the greater New Haven area and the Site Director of a CMS Health Care Innovations Award community asthma program.