Green lawns and blooming flowers are a welcome sight at this time of year, but for allergy sufferers, they signal the start of an allergy season that will continue until the first frost.
“The most common allergens in the spring are tree and grass pollens, as well as molds,” said Rajeev Kishore, MD, director of the Center for Allergy and Immunology at Akron Children’s Hospital. “Then in late summer and early fall, pollen from ragweed becomes a common trigger.”
Pollen and molds are both airborne allergens. Pollen counts are usually higher in the morning and on warm, dry, breezy days. They are lowest when it’s chilly and wet.
Molds are fungi that thrive both indoors and out in warm, moist environments. Outside, they may be found in poor drainage areas, such as piles of wet leaves or compost piles. Indoors, they grow in dark, poorly ventilated places, such as bathrooms and damp basements. As a result, mold allergies can be seasonal or year-round.
Symptoms of airborne allergies
Airborne allergens can cause allergic rhinitis, which occurs in about 15 to 20 percent of Americans. Symptoms of allergic rhinitis range from mild to severe and include:
- Itchy nose or throat
- Nasal congestion
- Runny nose
These symptoms are often accompanied by red, itchy and watery eyes, a condition known as allergic conjunctivitis.
“Allergies are sometimes mistaken for colds, but if symptoms persist for more than 10 to 14 days, it’s likely an allergy,” said Dr. Kishore. “With colds, there’s usually a thicker nasal drainage and less sneezing. The eyes may burn, but they won’t be red, itchy or watery as with allergies.”
If your child has cold-like symptoms lasting longer than a week or two, or develops what appears to be a cold at the same time every year, it’s probably a seasonal allergy.
Your doctor may be able to make a diagnosis and prescribe medications, or you may be referred to an allergist for allergy skin tests and more extensive therapy.
Diagnosing seasonal allergies
To determine the cause of an allergy, allergists usually perform skin tests for the most common environmental allergens. (They can also be used to test for food allergies, if the reactions are not severe.)
With skin tests, a small amount of the allergen, in the form of a liquid, is injected just under the skin. If a reddish bump resembling a mosquito bite appears at the injection site (usually within 15 minutes), the test is positive.
Even if a skin test shows an allergic reaction, a child must also have symptoms to be diagnosed with an allergy.
Relieving allergy symptoms
Since there is no cure for allergies, avoiding or reducing exposure to allergens is the best way to cope.
Although it’s nearly impossible to avoid airborne allergens completely, there are steps you can take to limit your child’s exposure.
“Two of the most important things you can do is keep windows closed and use air conditioning when pollen is at its peak,” said Dr. Kishore.
Other steps you can take to avoid exposure to airborne allergens include:
- Staying indoors when pollen counts are high.
- Making sure kids remove clothing after playing outside. Bathing or showering at the end of the day can also remove pollen that may have settled on the hair or body.
- Not hanging clothes or bedding outside to line dry.
- Not allowing your child to mow the lawn.
- Keeping kids who are allergic to mold away from damp areas, such as basements.
- Keeping bathrooms and other mold-prone areas dry.
For mild to moderate allergy symptoms, prescription or over-the-counter medication can provide relief, including antihistamines such as Zyrtec® or Claritin®, as well as inhaled steroid nasal sprays. Make sure your child takes any medication regularly.
When allergy symptoms are more severe, even with medication, immunotherapy or allergy shots can benefit certain patients. Although not a cure, allergy shots can alleviate symptoms to make them more tolerable.
Who gets allergies?
The tendency to develop allergies is often hereditary, although just because one or both parents may have allergies, there’s no guarantee that any of the children will also have them. It also doesn’t mean a particular allergy will be passed down, just that a child has a greater chance of being allergic.
It’s possible for a child to have allergies without any family history. A child who is allergic to one substance is likely to be allergic to others as well.
Can you outgrow allergies?
Although allergies generally stay with you for your entire life, the symptoms and their severity will vary.
“Most kids will get better in adolescence, usually around age 14 or 15, but then their allergies will peak again when they are young adults,” said Dr. Kishore.
Throughout adulthood, symptoms may come and go, often diminishing between the ages of 40 and 60.
When to see the doctor
If your child’s seasonal allergy symptoms are not easily controlled with medication and by avoiding exposure, Dr. Kishore recommends seeking medical attention.
Otherwise complications can develop, such as ear infections, sinus infections or bronchitis. In some cases, allergic rhinitis can progress to asthma or cause asthma flare-ups to occur.