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Brad Becker, MD

Adults who have seasonal allergies don’t need to be told when tree pollen spikes: They know the symptoms. Allergy experts say parents should stay alert to symptoms in kids as well.

Symptoms that include itchy eyes, sneezing, nasal congestion and coughing can be an annual springtime challenge, alerting sufferers to keep windows closed and rely on medicines to help keep symptoms under control.

But these same symptoms in children may go undiagnosed and not adequately treated, notes Brad Becker, M.D., an allergy specialist at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and Saint Louis University.

Dr. Becker explains that the seasonal allergy symptoms in a child may mimic a cold and may even be confused with food allergies, particularly if the child suffers from puffy eyes and redness about the face.

Further adding to the possibility of allergies being overlooked is that the onset may not occur during the child’s first years of life. Dr. Becker says children often do not develop an allergy to pollen until about the ages of 3 to 8. Prior to that, they may be symptom free.

“The first year it happens, parents may be confused as to what’s occurring,” Dr. Becker says.

“Most commonly, parents think the child has a cold. But when the symptoms are not accompanied by fever and tend to recur every spring with a lot of itching– those are the hallmarks of a seasonal allergy.

“An allergy,” Dr. Becker continues, “is simply the body’s reaction to some substance – in this case to tree pollen. Those who react to airborne pollen usually experience allergic rhinitis – a runny nose – and allergic conjunctivitis – itchy, water eyes.”

Dr. Becker notes that pollen can affect the entire bronchial system. If a person has wheezing, cough, and shortness of breath, the allergy may have progressed to become asthma.

Parents who have concerns should talk with their child’s doctor. Dr. Becker says that in mild cases, non-prescriptions may help reduce symptoms, but these often will only be effective when steps are also taken to limit exposure.

This means limiting the child’s outdoor exposure on days when pollen counts are reported to be very high. Although not always exact, the local weather report’s pollen count can be helpful when planning outside activities. Pollen counts are usually higher in the morning and on warm, dry, breezy days, whereas they’re lowest when it’s chilly and wet.

If symptoms continue and are affecting the child’s quality of life, Dr. Becker recommends seeking specialized help. Children with more severe seasonal allergies have difficulty sleeping, he continues, which he adds can cause hyperactivity and difficulty performing in school.

A specialist in allergies may recommend testing for specific allergens; controls meant to decrease allergic exposure, prescription medications, and perhaps shots to de-sensitize the allergic response. Dr. Becker says that treatment goals should include prescribing the lowest dose of medicine possible to relieve symptoms, but he emphasizes that medicine generally is not effective unless exposure to pollen also is reduced.

Dr. Becker notes that for children with allergies to tree pollen, springtime can be just the first assault. Late spring grass pollen is released, followed in fall by ragweed pollen and in late fall by mold, which continues until the onset of winter. Mold spores are also in the air these times of the year.

Parents also should not delay seeking help for a child with significant allergies, thinking the child will “outgrow” the allergy, Dr. Becker continues.

“This is true of some children, but more than half of children continue to have symptoms into adulthood,” Dr. Becker says. “Many children do not outgrow or tolerate their allergies until late in their grade school years or even middle school years, so it’s worth getting the child evaluated and treated.”

Dr. Becker continues that heredity also plays a role. If both parents have allergies, there’s a 50-50 chance their children will as well.

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