Maybe it's a persistent cough. Or perhaps a runny nose and sneezing. Itching of legs and arms also could be keeping your child up at night. Headaches, earaches, even vomiting could be other signs of allergies, any of which can prevent restful sleep.
Whatever the allergy symptom, and whether they have one or several, many children endure frustrating sleep disturbances as a result of their sensitivities to such things as food, dust mites, mold, pollen and pet dander.
According to Health Canada, a federal department responsible for health improvement, children as young as infants are affected, especially if allergies run in the family. The key to a good night's sleep is realizing what triggers your little one's symptoms and doing what you can to eliminate these things from their environment.
"The most effective treatment and the most desirable treatment for children with allergies is avoidance," says Dr. Rob Reinhardt, medical affairs director at Pharmacia Diagnostics and a practicing family physician in Kalamazoo, Mich. "You can't do effective avoidance unless you know specifically what your child is allergic to and not allergic to."
According to Health Canada, more than 12.2 percent of Canadian children have been diagnosed with asthma. And while no one knows the exact cause for the surge in asthma symptoms, experts say inhalant allergies typically develop in school-aged children, while sensitivities to certain foods, pets and dust mites can occur much younger.
Reinhardt, who is involved in educating both consumers and physicians on the importance of early and accurate allergy diagnosis, says a simple blood test is available to provide parents with answers. Also, because such testing is quantitative, parents can determine their child's worst allergy culprits.
"You can see if they are a little allergic or a lot allergic," he explains.
Blood tests can take place as early as 3 months of age. Parents may be interested in doing this, especially if allergies run in the family and if some allergy symptoms are already present. But parents should also know that allergies can, and often do, develop later in childhood so early testing may need to be repeated.
The 'Allergy March'
According to Health Canada, there are several foods and additives that account for most allergy problems including cow's milk, eggs, peanuts, wheat, soy and tree nuts.
What a child is allergic to can change or increase as they age. Experts refer to this type of allergy progression as the "allergy march." This means that infants and toddlers who have food allergies, which can trigger eczema – an itchy rash – may eventually experience inhaling-type allergies as preschoolers and be at risk for ultimately developing asthma between ages 4 and 6, Reinhardt says.
The idea of the "allergy march" is becoming more widely known and accepted within the medical community, he says.
"We're starting to research whether you can prevent this progression, if not from happening at all, at least from being as severe and whether it is beneficial to identify these sensitizations as soon as possible," Reinhardt says. "If you can at least slow the progression and decrease the severity of the symptoms, these certainly are goals parents and doctors want to attain for the kids."
Allergies and Sleep
Allergic children – and their families – aren't destined to experience chronic sleep problems, experts say.
"What you want to do is control allergic diseases; don't let them control you," says Dr. Kathleen Sheerin, an allergist at the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic in Atlanta, Ga. whose 5-year-old son has hay fever and 4-year-old had eczema and now has asthma. "If you don't control it, you will be up in the middle of the night, and everybody will be unhappy. There is no cure for allergies, but we can make a difference in the quality of life."
Medications – both prescribed and over-the-counter – can ease allergy symptoms. Educating yourself and working with your child's allergist or other health provider to find the best options for your child is important. Experts also offer the following tips:
- Plan ahead as much as possible. If allergies run in your family, take precautions as early as possible, even if that means when you're pregnant. This can include ensuring the baby's bedroom has wood or linoleum floors, for example. Other smart ideas: dust mite covers for crib mattresses and keeping decorations, bedding and stuffed animals at a minimum (they can breed dust mites).
- Don't have pets, or at the very least, keep them out of the bedroom.
- Clean air ducts in the bedrooms, and consider investing in an air purifier.
- Wash sheets and other bedding in hot water.
- Place a favorite blanket or stuffed animal in the freezer for 24 hours every three weeks to kill allergens.
- Establish a set place in the closet for toys, which prevents clutter and is easier to keep clean.
Dealing with allergies isn't fun for your child or your family, but understanding what you're up against and taking steps to control the problems can ensure everyone is happier.