Spring marks the beginning of allergy season, the time of year when so many of us can expect several months of sniffly, sneezy, itchy-eyed misery. Children are not immune to seasonal allergies, but unlike adults, they may not think to mention their symptoms which can lead to months of unnecessary suffering.
When allergies happen and how to spot them
Something is always blooming in Mendocino County, so allergies can be a concern year-round, but in spring the pollen count skyrockets. Allergies typically run in families, so if you are feeling the impacts of seasonal allergies, your child might be as well. Children are resilient and often won’t complain about their symptoms, so it is up to parents to watch for runny noses; sneezing fits; red, itchy and/or watery eyes; scratchy throats; or coughing (especially when your child lies down). These are all tell-tale signs of allergies.
Allergy medications and treatments
The good news is that most seasonal allergies can be treated with over-the-counter medication you can find at the nearest drugstore. Long-acting medications like Claritin and Zyrtec are good for children and adults alike. I know some people want to minimize the medications their children take, so they only provide allergy medicine when symptoms flare, but if your child suffers from allergies, they should take the allergy medication daily. Having the medicine in their system prevents the body from ramping up its allergic response. For most people, the only noticeable side effect of antihistamines is drowsiness, so I recommend giving them to your child at night rather than in the morning.
If you want a treatment with less medication, fluticasone is a good option. Fluticasone (often sold under the brand name Flonase) is a topical nasal spray that can be used once or twice a day to relieve sinus pressure caused by allergies.
Regardless of the medication you choose, saline rinses are a great addition. They provide considerable relief and contain no medication. I recommend them for nightly use and whenever symptoms worsen. A saline rinse helps to clear mucus from clogged sinuses and rinses away the pollen that causes inflammation.
Although allergy medications are safe for children as young as two, I suggest scheduling an appointment with your primary care provider if your child is younger than five years old. Your provider can confirm the right dosage and confirm that you are treating the right cause of their symptoms. For older children, especially those who have experienced multiple allergy seasons, start them on the medication as soon as you see symptoms.
When to see a doctor and how to tell if it’s allergies
If over-the-counter medications aren’t reducing or eliminating your child’s allergy symptoms, it’s time to see a medical professional. Also, if your child has year-round allergies, it’s best to see your primary care provider a couple times a year to review the medication dosage and to ensure further medical investigation isn’t required.
Many parents ask for a referral to an allergist to find out exactly what is causing their child’s symptoms. The only time a referral is recommended is when the child’s symptoms cannot be addressed by common treatments. Knowing whether your child is allergic to tree pollen or grass pollen makes no difference in how we treat it. I caution parents against going down the rabbit hole of trying to pinpoint the exact allergen when having that information won’t improve their child’s life—and it can be expensive (financially and emotionally). Because we have no allergists here in Mendocino County, referral to a specialist means out-of-town travel and extensive testing. So, unless your child is not responding well to common treatments, this is a fool’s errand.
Allergy symptoms can look a lot like cold or COVID symptoms. However, colds and COVID often start with a little fever, while allergies do not. Even if your child does not have a fever, if they are sneezy or sniffly we recommend they be tested for COVID. This protects vulnerable groups—like grandparents—from COVID, and knowing whether a child has had COVID may be important, as future health problems could be related to the virus.
Seasonal allergies aren’t terribly dangerous, but they sure can be miserable. Happily, this is one of those areas where modern medicine can really help.
Kirsten Juliet is a Pediatrician at MCHC Health Centers, a community-based and patient-directed organization that serves Mendocino and Lake Counties, providing comprehensive primary healthcare services as well as supportive services such as education and translation that promote access to healthcare. Learn more at mchcinc.org.