Your child comes home from school coughing and sneezing, with itchy eyes and a runny nose. Is it a cold? Or is it allergies? How can you tell? And, if it is allergy related, what can you do about it?

Symptoms

Many cold and allergy symptoms overlap, making it difficult to tell the difference at first glance. A runny or stuffy nose, coughing, sneezing, and fatigue could be signs of either a cold or allergies. Certain symptoms, however, like aches, pains, or a sore throat, point to a cold. Others, like itchy eyes, or symptoms that linger more than a few days, definitely suggest allergies. 

Think your child is suffering from allergies? Read on to learn more about avoiding common allergens and treating allergies with over-the-counter medications. There’s also information about next steps, such as visiting an immunologist, should these basic measures fail to help.

Avoiding Common Allergens

The first line of defense against allergies is avoidance of the environmental triggers. Common airborne allergens include pet dander, pollen, mold, and dust mites.

Pet Dander

Getting rid of a child’s pet isn’t an easy decision, and also isn’t necessarily the only way to deal with dander allergies. You may decide to keep a pet, even if your child is allergic. To eliminate pet dander, bathe the animal weekly, and keep it off the furniture. Vacuum carpets often, or replace them with hard flooring. You can also install HEPA filters in your home to clean the air. Be sure to clean or change the filters according to instructions.

Pollen

Pollen is more common at certain times of the year, like spring, and at certain times of the day. According to Harvard Medical School, ragweed pollen counts are highest around midday, and grass pollen is worse in the late afternoon. If pollen is the culprit, try to keep your child inside during peak pollen activity.

Mold

Mold thrives in moist environments, and the spores travel through the air. Eliminate sources of moisture in your home. Clean areas where water tends to collect, such as air conditioners and refrigerator drip pans. Use a dehumidifier, and run bathroom exhaust fans when showering.

Dust Mites

Dust mites are microscopic insects that live in household dust, eating flakes of human skin. Regular dusting and vacuuming helps cut down on their numbers, as does washing bed linens weekly in hot water. You can also purchase zippered covers for your child’s mattress and pillow to keep mites from moving in.

Over-the-Counter Medications

When prevention is not enough, there are certain over-the-counter (OTC) medications that are available for use in children. Oral antihistamines block the histamines responsible for the allergic reaction, and are generally regarded by the FDA as safe for children. Certain types of antihistamines can make children drowsy, but there are newer, non-drowsy formulations sold under brand names such as Claritin, Allegra, and Zyrtec. Decongestants work to clear a stuffy nose. Sudafed can be taken orally. OTC nasal sprays include Afrin and Neo-Synephrine. 

Please note that it is very important to consult your child’s doctor before administering allergy medication. Some medications can have side effects, and dosage instructions need to be followed carefully.

Could It Be Time to Consult an Immunologist?

You’ve tried keeping your child away from allergens, and he or she may have tried over-the-counter medications too (or been advised by your child’s pediatrician not to). If allergy symptoms are still making your child miserable, it may be time to make an appointment with a specialist.

Immunologists are doctors who specialize in the behaviors of the immune system, which includes the body’s response to allergens. At an appointment with an immunologist, the doctor will work to diagnose the causes of your child’s allergies. This may involve skin tests, blood tests, or both. Once the doctor determines exactly which airborne allergens your child is allergic to, they can then map out a prevention and treatment program created specifically for your child. This kind of plan often includes allergy shots, which introduce small quantities of the allergen into your child’s body. These shots help the body “learn” not to react to the allergen.

You Can Help Your Child Feel Better

Allergy symptoms can make your child miserable. They can even result in school absences and missed social activities. But you can help your child feel better by arming yourself with the information you need. Seek help from experts to stop allergy symptoms in their tracks.