Spring is in the air! The flowers are blooming, there are buds on plants, and the trees are getting green. Unfortunately, so are a lot of other things… with a nice coat of pollen! Spring brings a lot of beauty, but it also brings pollen, which for many of us and our children can cause the sneezing, itchy watery eyes, cough, and congestion of allergies. I frequently get questions from parents about allergies and how to manage them, so I figured this would be a good time for a brief run-down on this sniffly subject.
Allergies, also called “Hay Fever,” occur when the body’s immune system interprets a foreign substance as something harmful, and mounts a response against it. (“Hay Fever” is a misnomer, since allergies don’t typically cause fever). The allergy response involves a number of reactions in the body. One of those is the release of a compound called histamine. There are other compounds released as well, including things that most people have never heard of, such as cytokines, interleukins, and leukotrienes. Say those 10 times fast! These compounds then lead to symptoms such as nasal congestion, runny nose, itchy or watery eyes, sneezing, coughing, and sometimes bluish discoloration under the eyes (called “allergic shiners”).
It can be difficult to tell the difference between allergies and common colds, but allergies typically do not cause fever, and usually won’t cause other viral symptoms like body aches, vomiting, or diarrhea. Unfortunately they can cause us to not sleep well and thus contribute to fatigue, and cause drainage in the back of the throat (post nasal drainage) that can cause an irritated throat.
Unlike viruses, which will run their course in roughly a week in most cases, allergies are with us all the time, and symptoms will persist as long as we are exposed to the offending substance, called an “allergen.” In some cases we can be allergic to things we find indoors, like dust mites or sometimes certain insects like roaches; in other cases the allergens are outdoor ones, such as pollens or mold spores.
There is no good way to really “cure” allergies, unfortunately, so we have to settle for “managing” them – that means either taking steps to avoid the offending allergen(s), or taking medicines that curb or reduce the allergy response. In more extreme cases, allergists can use shots to desensitize the body to the allergen(s). Avoidance measures can be things like trying to stay indoors when the pollen is bad, opening doors or windows as little as possible, and using quality filters in our air conditioning systems to filter the allergens out of the air. Avoiding indoor allergens can take the form of making sure to rid the home of insects or pests, encasing mattresses and pillows in special covers that reduce dust mites, and keeping our rooms clear of dust-collecting items like curtains, carpets, or stuffed animals.
Medications to help with allergy symptoms are commonly used in both children and adults, and take the form of oral medicines to block the effect of histamines (antihistamines, which are the most common form of allergy medications), or a medicine that blocks the effect of leukotrienes. There are also nasal sprays that help reduce inflammation in the nose and back of the throat. Some of these medicines are available over-the-counter, others require prescriptions.
Allergies are often nothing to sneeze at, but there are a number of options available to help treat and manage them, for both adults and kids alike; so be sure to talk to your child’s doctor if you think they are suffering from allergy symptoms!