After kids have been cooped up indoors all winter, the arrival of spring and its attendant warm weather and blooming flowers bring an almost magical quality to the new season; except, that is, for spring allergy sufferers. And children are by no means immune to the problem.
In fact, about 20 percent of all children experience symptoms in response to certain allergens. While seasonal allergies are not typically dangerous, they can cause discomfort and adversely affect a child’s concentration or sleep. We tapped local expert Dr. Arlene Tyler, a pediatrician with the community-based nonprofit Baltimore Medical System, to provide a better understanding of spring allergies and how they affect children.
Q: What are the primary symptoms of spring allergies in children?
A: Allergic rhinitis and conjunctivitis are the two main symptoms. Rhinitis may involve recurring episodes of wheezing, a runny nose with clear mucus, itchy nose and throat or a cough. Conjunctivitis deals with the eyes as opposed to the nose, and is characterized by itchy eyes, redness or swelling. Sixty percent of all children who experience rhinitis have allergy-related issues with their eyes, too.
Q: What are allergies, exactly?
Our immune system is in charge of fighting off infections. Allergies are an overreaction of the immune system against something harmless, such as pollen. Allergic rhinitis and conjunctivitis are the two main symptoms.
How can we treat allergies?
The number one thing that a parent or child can do to prevent the symptoms of allergies is to avoid the cause altogether. For example, if a child has allergies in the spring, they are most likely caused by grass or tree pollen. Minimize the impact that these allergies cause by taking simple steps such as washing your hands regularly and keeping windows closed at home and in the car.
An important additional step is making sure you do not contaminate your environment with allergens. For example, this could happen by lying in bed when you get home without washing off or changing clothes.
While avoiding spring allergens is ideal, it may not be practical. Other suggestions?
As beneficial as staying out of the elements can be, you can’t avoid nature in its entirety, which is why there is medication to help manage allergies as well. If a child is known to have seasonal allergies, it is important that a parent start administering allergy medicines before allergy season starts to minimize symptoms.
There are a number of different types of medicine and each patient may be better suited to some than others. For example, little children usually don’t like eye drops. I usually try to prescribe oral antihistamines for young children. However, if children specifically have issues with their eyes or their nose, eye drops or nasal spray might be better options for treatment.
Are there any long-term solutions?
Today, most allergy medicines are available over-the-counter, which makes them far more accessible for parents on short notice. However, while over-the-counter medications can treat the symptoms, as soon as you stop the treatment and are exposed to an allergen again, the symptoms will return.
Any promising new treatments on the horizon?
Thankfully, recent years have seen amazing advancements in the growing field of allergy immunotherapy, which provides treatments designed to change the immune system’s response to an allergen over time.
Essentially, the idea is to create an allergy desensitization, whereby if you are exposed to your allergen, you would experience little to no symptoms. Immunotherapy requires lots of compliance and time. It is a very prolonged course of treatment. The benefits might not be as great if you have to miss appointments or do not fully adhere to the schedule.
Could you explain more about immunotherapy’s prolonged course of treatment?
There are two types of immunotherapy currently available. The field began with subcutaneous immunotherapy, otherwise known as allergy shots. At first it entails a weekly treatment for several months, which slowly decreases to treatment once a month over the course of several years. Each week, a patient is injected with a slightly higher concentration of their allergen to slowly build up an immunity and desensitize the body to the allergen.
The other option now available is sublingual immunotherapy, where children are dosed with either a dissolvable tablet or a liquid under the tongue. Oral immunotherapy like this involves being dosed every day, as opposed to every week or month as with shots.
If parents suspect a child may be suffering from allergies, what do you suggest?
If a child is uncomfortable and not acting like themselves or sleeping poorly, you should first consult your pediatrician for further guidance on the best way to treat your child.