Some 50 million Americans – adults and kids – suffer from some form of allergy, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI).
Allergies can develop at any age, and heredity plays a key role in determining who will have them, says the AAAAI. Unfortunately, allergies can lead to other conditions, including sinus or ear infections and lack of sleep due to symptoms.
Talk about a gift that keeps on giving: If a parent has allergies, there’s an increased chance that his child will, too. And if both parents are allergy sufferers, the odds rise even more that their offspring will sniffle and sneeze.
An allergy occurs when the body’s immune system overreacts to an otherwise harmless substance, such as pollen. Allergens can be inhaled, eaten, injected (from stings or medicine), or they can come into contact with the skin. Some of the more common allergens include pollens, molds, house-dust mites, animal dander and saliva, chemicals, some foods and medicines and insect-sting venom.
Allergies, Colds and Asthma: What’s the Difference?
Is it an allergy or a cold? Could asthma be playing a part in your respiratory distress? Here are some common signs of each, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP):
- An itchy, runny nose with thin, clear nasal discharge and/or a stuffy nose
- Itchy, watery eyes
- Repeated extended attacks of sneezing and itching of the nose, eyes or skin that lasts
- No fever
- Seasonal symptoms, usually in spring, summer and fall
- Dark circles (“allergic shiners”) under the eyes
- Constant throat clearing
- Nighttime snoring and mouth breathing due to stuffiness
- Headache without fever
- Stuffy nose
- Nasal discharge that is usually clear initially but can turn colored and thick
- A duration of 3 to 10 days, with or without fever
- Absence of itching
Coughing or making a high-pitched wheezing or whistling sound while breathing can indicate asthma, says the AAP. Many things can trigger an asthma attack, including a viral respiratory infection that inflames the lining of the bronchial tubes and stimulates the muscles surrounding them. Other potential triggers: certain medications, smoke or paint fumes, exercise and inhaling cold air.
Asthma symptoms and attacks sometimes prompt emergency-room visits. You may want to keep the following list near your phone in case of an emergency:
- Keep paper and pen near the phone to record symptoms and your doctor’s suggestions.
- When calling your doctor or an emergency room, first provide your child’s name and age.
- Ask for the doctor’s or nurse’s name and write it down.
- Explain why you’re calling. Remember exactly which medicines you gave your child, how much and when it was given. (Keep a written record.)
- Describe symptoms. An asthma attack may include the following symptoms: sweating and unusual paleness, flared nostrils when breathing in, pursed lips when breathing out, hunched-over posture, inability to sit or stand straight, rapid heartbeat, no breathing sounds at all (fixed chest), vomiting.
- Stay on the line while waiting for instructions, and repeat them back to confirm that you heard them correctly.
What About Allergy Shots?
If medications aren’t controlling the symptoms, your doctor may recommend allergy injections, which can be started as early as the preschool years. While researchers still don’t know exactly how allergy shots work, it appears the injections make the immune system more tolerant to allergens, causing the patient to react less violently to the substances to which she’s allergic.
Starting with a very dilute dose of allergen extract, injections are initially given once or twice weekly. The dose is then increased gradually until a maintenance dose is reached. This can occur within four to six months, but it may sometimes take up to a year. Patience is required: relief from symptoms is not immediate and sometimes may not occur until the shots have been given for up to two years.
Environmental Changes Can Help
Controlling allergens at home can go a long way toward preventing and easing allergy symptoms. Here are some tips for making your home a bit more allergen-free:
- Keep the house clean and dry to reduce mold and dust mites. Use protective covers on mattresses and pillows and regularly wash bedding in hot water to kill dust mites.
- Prevent anyone from smoking near allergic family members.
- Keep windows closed during pollen season, especially on windy days and in the morning when pollen counts are highest.
Kathy Sena is an award-winning health writer and the mother of a 9-year-old son.
SIX STEPS TO BUILD ALLERGY IMMUNITY
To help boost your child’s immune system so she has greater resistance to allergies, try these six steps. (They are surprisingly easy and extremely effective as immunity boosters.):
- Encourage a regular exercise program. Physical activity helps open passageways and protect against respiratory congestion.
- End outdoor activities early in the day. Pollen and mold counts are very high in the early morning hours. Schedule activities for late afternoon or early evening.
- Remain indoors when air is extremely dry or windy.
- Guard against irritants. Things like chlorine in pools and chemical sprays increase sensitivity to inhaled allergens. In chlorinated pools, kids can wear leak-proof goggles, nose clips and ear plugs.
- Use an air conditioner when indoors, and keep windows closed.
- Rinse tender nasal passages with ordinary salt water. A refreshing allergy-fighting remedy can be made at home: mix half a teaspoon of salt in one cup of lukewarm water. Gently squirt the solution into your child’s nose with a syringe.
From The Family Guide to Symptoms, Ailments, and Their Natural Remedies, by Carlson Wade, revised by Theresa Foy DiGeronimo, Reward Books, 2000.