"Ah-choo!" It's your son's third sneezing fit of the morning, and as you hand him another tissue you wonder if these cold-like symptoms — the sneezing, congestion, and runny nose — have something to do with the recent weather change. If he gets similar symptoms at the same time every year, you're likely right: seasonal allergies are at work.
Seasonal allergies, sometimes called "hay fever" or seasonal allergic rhinitis, are allergy symptoms that occur during certain times of the year, usually when outdoor molds release their spores, and trees, grasses, and weeds release tiny pollen particles into the air to fertilize other plants.
The immune systems of people who are allergic to mold spores or pollen treat these particles (called allergens) as invaders and release chemicals, including histamine, into the bloodstream to defend against them. It's the release of these chemicals that causes allergy symptoms.
People can be allergic to one or more types of pollen or mold. The type someone is allergic to determines when symptoms occur. For example, in the mid-Atlantic states, tree pollination is February through May, grass pollen runs from May through June, and weed pollen is from August through October — so kids with these allergies are likely to have increased symptoms at those times. Mold spores tend to peak midsummer through the fall, depending on location.
Even kids who have never had seasonal allergies in years past can develop them. Seasonal allergies can start at almost any time, though they usually develop by 10 years of age and reach their peak in the early twenties, with symptoms often disappearing later in adulthood.
If your child develops a "cold" at the same time every year, seasonal allergies might be to blame. Allergy symptoms, which usually come on suddenly and last as long as a person is exposed to a particular allergen, can include:
These symptoms often come with itchy, watery, and/or red eyes, which is called allergic conjunctivitis. If your child has wheezing and shortness of breath in addition to these symptoms, the allergy may have progressed into asthma.
Seasonal allergies are fairly easy to identify because the pattern of symptoms returns from year to year following exposure to an allergen.
Talk with your doctor if you think your child might have allergies. The doctor will ask about symptoms and when they appear and, based on the answers and a physical exam, should be able to make a diagnosis. If not, the doctor may refer you to an allergist for blood or allergy skin tests.
To determine an allergy's cause, allergists usually do skin tests in one of two ways:
Even if a skin test or a blood test shows an allergy, a child must also have symptoms to be definitively diagnosed with an allergy. For example, a child who has a positive test for grass pollen and sneezes frequently while playing in the grass would be considered allergic to grass pollen.
There is no real cure for seasonal allergies, but it is possible to relieve symptoms. Start by reducing or eliminating exposure to allergens. During allergy season, keep windows closed, use air conditioning if possible, and stay indoors when pollen counts are high.
Have your child wash hands or shower and change clothing after playing outside. And a child with seasonal allergies should not mow the lawn (this tends to kick up pollen and mold spores).
If reducing exposure isn't possible or is ineffective, medicines can help ease allergy symptoms. These may include decongestants, antihistamines, and nasal spray steroids. If symptoms cannot be managed with medicines, the doctor may recommend taking your child to an allergist or immunologist for regular allergy shots (immunotherapy), which can help desensitize kids to allergens.
Reviewed by: Nicole A. Green, MD
Date reviewed: May 2013
|National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) conducts and supports basic and applied research to better understand, treat, and ultimately prevent infectious, immunologic, and allergic diseases.|
|American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology offers up-to-date information and a find-an-allergist search tool.|
|Allergy and Asthma Network/Mothers of Asthmatics (AAN-MA) Through education, advocacy, community outreach, and research, AAN-MA hopes to eliminate suffering and fatalities due to asthma and allergies. AAN-MA offers news, drug recall information, tips, and more for treating allergies and asthma. Call: (800) 878-4403|
|What Is Skin Testing for Allergies? A scratch or skin prick test is a common way doctors find out more about a person's allergies.|
|All About Allergies Up to 50 million Americans, including millions of kids, have an allergy. Find out how allergies are diagnosed and how to keep them under control.|
|First Aid: Allergic Reactions Although most allergic reactions aren't serious, severe reactions can be life-threatening and can require immediate medical attention.|
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|Learning About Allergies During an allergic reaction, your body's immune system goes into overdrive. Find out more in this article for kids.|
|How Do Doctors Test for Allergies? Find out what the experts have to say.|
|Can Kids Get Allergies All Year? Find out what the experts have to say.|
|Environmental Control Measures Families of kids with allergies should use environmental control measures that reduce exposure to the child's allergy triggers. Here's how to begin.|
|Allergies Explore more than 20 articles in English and Spanish about all aspects of allergies in children.|
|Do Allergies Cause Asthma? Kids who have allergies are more likely to have a breathing problem called asthma. Find out more in this article for kids.|
|Do Allergies Cause Asthma? Although allergies and asthma are separate conditions, they are related. People who have allergies - particularly ones that affect the nose and eyes - are more likely to have asthma.|
|Do Allergies Cause Asthma? Some things that cause an allergic reaction, such as pollen or dust, can also trigger asthma symptoms. But not everyone who has allergies develops asthma and not all case of asthma are related to allergies. Find out about the connection here.|
|A Cold or Allergies: Which Is It? Is it a cold or allergies? Find out what the experts have to say.|
|Hives (Urticaria) Has your child broken out in welts? It could be a case of the hives. Learn how to soothe itchy bumps and help your child feel better.|
|Allergy Shots Many kids battle allergies year-round, and some can't control their symptoms with medications. For them, allergy shots (or allergen immunotherapy) can be beneficial.|
|Allergy Testing Doctors use several different types of allergy tests, depending on what a person may be allergic to. Find out what to expect from allergy tests.|
|What Makes Me Sneeze? If you just sneezed, something was probably irritating or tickling the inside of your nose. Learn more about why you sneeze in this article for kids.|
|Blood Test: Allergen-Specific Immunoglobulin E (IgE) This test is done to check for allergies to specific allergens. It's especially useful in kids who've had life-threatening reactions to a certain allergen and for whom a skin-prick test would be too dangerous.|
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