Beating Springtime Sniffles
The first signs of new leaves and crocuses are unparalleled. As the world around us turns green, hope and cheer are at their fullest. Spring is beginning, signifying, among other things, a marked decrease in runny noses and trips to the doctor, right? Not always.
A major cause of stuffy noses and other cold-like symptoms is allergies, and spring's foliage, while pleasing to the eye, also gives birth to an abundance of allergens, which can set your family sneezing.
"Fatigue, sleep disturbances, cough, headache and ear congestion are frequent hay-fever symptoms," says Dr. Gary Rachelefsky, a pediatric allergist and immunologist and past president of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI). He explains that throughout the spring, various trees and grass pollens can result in hay fever affecting the nose and eyes.
Allergy symptoms can run from mild to severe. Those affecting the nose can cause a runny nose, coughing and difficulty breathing – even including complete obstruction of nasal passages, an inability to smell and decreased appetite and weight loss. Some children have major eye symptoms where the eyes are irritated, sensitive to light and may even develop scratches on the cornea.
Distinguishing Colds from Allergies
Parents are often baffled by their children's symptoms, wondering "if this is just a cold, why does it recur so often, and why does my child seem to feel lousy all the time?" The difference between cold and allergy symptoms, says Dr. Rachelefsky, is that a cold is generally short-lived – with possible low-grade fever – and then it goes away. Allergies may last for weeks, but may keep coming and going.
With allergies, mucous is usually clear, and when an infection is present, the mucous may be thick, opaque or green. Also, allergies respond to allergy medication and colds do not.
As Cynthia, a mother of four, says, until she realized that her son, Elliot, was suffering from allergies, she was beside herself trying to figure out why he was always hoarse and complaining of cold symptoms and headaches. Elliot, a veritable baseball addict, suffered to the extent that he preferred lying down, almost comatose, to running bases. Yet shortly after he began allergy treatment, the whole family noticed a significant improvement in his well-being. Most important to him, he says, "I was able to play ball again."
The Asthma Connection
Asthma, characterized by wheezing, coughing and difficulty breathing, can also accompany allergies. Asthma can range from infrequent and mild to severe and even life threatening when not treated properly.
"Asthma can interfere with a child's growth, as can any chronic illness," says Dr. Herbert Krantman, a pediatric allergist and immunologist and member of the AAAAI. "Asthmatic children may also be smaller because they expend so much energy just in an effort to breathe, but these are generally children who are not receiving proper medical care."
Judah, a father of two young children, had infrequent bouts of asthma as a child, but he and his parents did not realize it was asthma at the time. As his difficulty breathing would usually subside after a short period of time, they did not mention it to the doctor. Yet as an adult, Judah's asthma became very difficult to handle and control, and eventually he was referred to an allergist.
As it turned out, Judah was allergic to trees, weeds, grasses and more. "My test results made it seem like I was allergic to everything but water," he says. He received allergy shots on a regular basis and used an inhaler when he had difficulty breathing.
When Judah's son began exhibiting signs that he might be allergic as well, Judah took him to an allergist immediately and discovered that the child is severely allergic. This comes as no surprise to Dr. Krantman, who says that allergic conditions are familial. With proper medical care, Judah's son will be able to control his allergies and lead a normal, healthy life.
A Trip to the Doctor
Initial visits to the allergist generally include a thorough medical history and physical exam, possible X-rays of the sinuses, a breathing test, skin tests and a nasal smear for eosinophil or infection (counting of certain white blood cells associated with allergies as opposed to infections).
Dr. Rachelefsky says that the allergist will spend a great deal of time "educating the parents about why, what and where for allergies, especially environmental control in home, school and daycare."
Sometimes parents may feel that the management of a child's allergies and various medications can be a bit overwhelming. They may even have feelings of guilt about a child's need to get shots on a regular basis. A key factor in dealing with allergy treatment is to involve a child in the management of her own care at an early age and stage of care, says Dr. Krantman, and your allergist can offer suggestions as to how to accomplish this.
Allergies, although irritating, are quite common. If your child suffers from allergies, realize that you are not alone, and that with proper medical care there is no reason why your child should not experience a healthy and happy childhood.