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Seasonal allergies or a cold? 8 questions with a pediatric allergist and immunologist
September 18, 2023
Boy sneezing at the kitchen table next to his dad

    If sounds of coughs, sneezes and sniffles fill the air at your home, you might be wondering if your child has already brought a cold home from school. It’s certainly possible, but they could also be dealing with seasonal allergies.

    Dr. Santhosh Kumar, pediatric allergy and immunology specialist, explains fall seasonal allergies and how to know if that’s what’s causing your kid’s symptoms.

    Spring is often thought of as “allergy season.” What are the causes of seasonal allergies in fall?

    The most common culprit for seasonal allergies in the late summer and fall is ragweed, which releases a fine, powdery pollen between August and November. Mold spores can also cause allergies to flare, especially in periods of high humidity and after leaves have fallen.

    In the springtime, many people experience allergic reactions to tree and grass pollination.

    What are the symptoms of seasonal allergies?

    Specific allergy symptoms vary from person to person, but common ones include:

    • Cough and congestion
    • Itchy, watery eyes
    • Runny or stuffy nose
    • Sniffling
    • Sneezing
    • Sore or scratchy throat

    How do I know if my child has allergies or a cold?

    The symptoms are similar, so this can be a tricky question, but there are a few symptoms that can help determine if your child is dealing with seasonal allergies or a cold.

    • A fever is a sign of a viral illness, like a cold. Allergies don’t cause fevers in kids.
    • Fatigue is another symptom that typically doesn’t occur with allergies. Exhaustion is a sign that the sniffles and sneezes are related to an illness. That said, allergy symptoms can keep kids from getting a good night’s rest, which can lead to sleepiness during the day.
    • A common cold usually doesn’t last more than a week or two. If your child’s symptoms linger beyond this point, it’s likely they’re dealing with seasonal allergies which can stick around for several weeks or even months.
    • Watery, itchy eyes and itchy nose usually indicate allergies rather than a cold.
    • Thick and/or yellow/green mucus can be a sign of a cold or other infection, while clear, watery nasal secretions are more likely with allergies.

    Most mild colds and allergies don’t require a trip to the doctor. You know your child better than anyone, so if you have a concern, it never hurts to send a message through your patient portal or call to speak to the triage nurse.

    When do kids first start experiencing seasonal allergies?

    Allergies to pollens usually don’t develop before the age of 2 and are more likely to show up when kids are about 5 or 6. That’s because people need to be exposed to allergens a few times to become sensitized to them. Reactions to allergens in the home environment, such as pets or dust, are often evident at younger ages because little ones are around them every day.

    Why do some people suffer from seasonal allergies, while others don’t?

    Seasonal allergies are the result of the immune system overreacting to pollen as an invader in the body and releasing histamine to overcome it. These histamines cause allergy symptoms. We don’t know exactly why not everybody overreacts this way to these “invaders,” but seasonal allergies do tend to run in families.

    How are seasonal allergies and asthma related?

    Not all children with allergies will have asthma and vice versa – but if a child’s asthma isn’t under control, allergies may make it worse. Many of the same irritants, like pollen and dust, can cause both allergies and asthma to flare. If your child has asthma, make sure they stay up to date with their controller medication and see a health care provider for proper management.

    How can I help keep my child’s seasonal allergy symptoms to a minimum?

    Try these steps to limit their exposure to allergens, while still allowing them to enjoy some time outside.

    • Ask them to wash their hands and face when they come in from playing outside.
    • Have them shower before getting in bed at night.
    • Dry clothing and bedding in the dryer rather than hanging outside.
    • Keep car and home windows closed during peak allergy seasons.
    • Limit outside time when pollen counts are especially high. Weather reports often provide this information.
    • If another adult is available to watch your child, have them stay indoors while you mow and do other yardwork.
    • Avoid wet leaves and garden debris that can get moldy.

    How can I treat my child’s seasonal allergies?

    A nasal saline spray can safely help relieve congestion and flush allergens. Oral antihistamines can also help alleviate symptoms by blocking the histamines causing the allergic reactions. Read the label closely to ensure proper dosing and learn about potential side effects. It’s a good idea to talk with your family’s pediatrician before starting any medications to make sure they’re safe for your child.

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