The Take-Charge Guide to Allergies
It's that dreaded time of year again when runny noses, itchy eyes, and scratchy throats take center stage. Kick those symptoms to the curb with our comprehensive plan.
Come mid-March, Kelly Beins knows it's time to start her 6-year-old daughter, Mae, on her allergy medicine. "It's like clockwork," says the Frederick, Maryland, mother of two. "Mae's runny nose, hacking cough, and all-over itchiness start in the beginning of spring and move into high gear from April through June. But I know now that if I begin her prescription corticosteroid spray a few weeks earlier, and take some preventive measures like keeping our windows closed, we can avoid the symptoms, or at least lessen them."
While Beins can breathe a sigh of relief that she finally has a handle on her daughter's health, it took years of juggling various over-the-counter and prescription medications, as well as visiting many doctors and modifying Mae's diet -- not to mention many sleepless nights -- before she felt that way.
Right about now, there are plenty of parents like Beins, wondering whether there's anything they can do about their child's chronically drippy nose, itchy, watery eyes, and up-all-night cough. Many assume that those symptoms are due to a cold. But at this time of year, the culprit may well be an allergy -- an overreaction of the body's immune system to substances known as allergens that are normally harmless. With a kaleidoscope of new products lining drugstore shelves (many of them having been downgraded in recent years from prescription to over-the-counter), it's tempting to assume that you can treat these misery-making symptoms on your own.
"Trying an over-the-counter medication for a few days is fine -- as long as you make sure you're giving your child the right one," says Parents advisor Ari Brown, M.D., a pediatrician in Austin, Texas, and author of Baby 411. In fact, there's a lot you can do to take charge of your kid's allergies. However, it's equally important to know when to see your pediatrician -- or an allergist -- to manage the symptoms. The first step, though, is figuring out what's triggering them in the first place.
Is It an Allergy or a Cold?
For many kids, nasal allergies -- what doctors call allergic rhinitis and the rest of us call hay fever -- are the most common trigger for upper-respiratory symptoms. According to a national survey by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, up to 40 percent of youngsters suffer from nasal allergies. For some, they're simply a minor inconvenience. For others, allergies seriously impact sleep and schoolwork and sideline them from the joys of being a kid.
The problem, doctors say, is that parents are often confused about whether those sneezes and coughs are triggered by an allergy or a cold. Think about your child's actions. Is she sniffling and clearing her throat? Rubbing her eyes or nose up and down (a move doctors call the "allergic salute")? She's probably suffering from allergies.
"Kids with a cold may have a thick nasal discharge, a low-grade fever, and achiness, but they'll feel better in three to five days," says Jane Morton, M.D., clinical professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine, in Palo Alto, California, and a Parents advisor. "Allergy sufferers have no fever, but they do have a watery nasal discharge and possibly itchy nose and eyes, and they may be miserable for months. And those symptoms usually crop up every year, right around the same time."
There are two types of nasal allergies, and some kids have both. The most common is seasonal allergic rhinitis, which could strike in the spring when trees, grasses, and weeds release pollen into the air, and can continue through late summer and even into fall, when ragweed flourishes. Perennial allergic rhinitis affects kids year-round and is triggered by indoor allergens such as dust mites (ubiquitous in every home), mold, pet dander, and cockroach particles.
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