Your toddler’s cold symptoms just won’t clear up. They have had a cough, a runny nose, and red eyes that they can’t help rubbing for weeks. Maybe it’s not a lingering cold, says Dr. Hassan Alzein of Alzein Pediatrics in Evergreen Park and Oak Lawn, Illinois. It could instead be allergies.
Allergy symptoms happen when your child’s immune system reacts to a usually harmless substance called allergens. When your child comes into contact with an allergen – by touching it, breathing it, or eating it – their body mistakenly views it as a dangerous invader and releases histamines and other chemicals to fight it off. These chemicals irritate their body and cause symptoms such as itching, sneezing, a runny nose, and coughing.
Symptoms can be mild or severe and intermittent or ongoing depending upon exposure to the allergen. In some cases, an allergen can cause anaphylactic shock, a severe allergic reaction. Anaphylactic shock is a medical emergency that is life-threatening. Call 9-1-1 immediately if your child has difficulty breathing or swelling.
Your child is not alone in having allergies. Over 16% of children have indoor allergies, nearly 5% have food allergies and a whopping 40% of children suffer from seasonal allergies. If your toddler’s parents have allergies, your child has a 60% to 70% chance of having them too.
Wondering why your child didn’t have a reaction to eggs the first time they tried them but did the second time? Before having a food allergy reaction, a sensitive child must have been exposed to the food at least once before, or could also be sensitized through breast milk.
It is the second time your child eats the food that the allergic symptoms happen. At that time, antibodies react with the food, and histamines are released. Food allergies can be intense and life-threatening. Your child may experience:
- Stomachache, nausea or vomiting
- Hives or rash, particularly around the mouth
- Runny or stuffy nose, coughing
- Tightness of the throat, trouble breathing or wheezing
Most food allergies are caused by
- Cow’s milk
- Tree nuts and peanuts
- Fish and shellfish
There are no medications to prevent food allergies. Treatment focuses on working with your pediatrician to identify the foods that cause the symptoms and then avoiding those foods and similar foods entirely. If you are breastfeeding your child, it is important for you to also avoid eating those foods.
Read all labels on all foods each time you shop. Choose nutritional foods every time. A food you thought was “safe” may have had its formula or ingredients changed since your last purchase and may now contain allergens. Your pediatrician may recommend nutritional supplements for your child when their allergies eliminate important foods and may prescribe an emergency kit with an EpiPen or epinephrine, which helps stop severe reactions.
Many food allergies will improve, and even disappear, as your toddler grows up, but allergies to tree nuts or peanuts may last all their life.
Seasonal allergies can begin in the spring, when trees start “blooming” and releasing pollen, often as early as March. Grass pollens begin to fly in May and weed pollens make their presence felt in June, July, and August. From August until the first frost, ragweed is the biggest allergen culprit.
Your child’s seasonal allergies can cause:
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Itchy, watery or red eyes
- Ear pain
- Itchy nose or throat
- Wheezing or shortness of breath
Seasonal allergies can also trigger asthma attacks and chronic ear infections.
Treatment for your toddler’s seasonal allergies will depend upon the severity of their symptoms. As with food allergies, avoidance is the best prevention. Your child may get relief from spending high pollen count days indoors with the air conditioner running or your pediatrician may recommend an over-the-counter, child-safe antihistamine.
In severe cases, your physician may prescribe steroids, inhaled medication, nasal sprays, or decongestants. Never give your toddler any allergy medications without your physician’s advice. When your toddler spends time outside, be sure they wash their hands and face often. At the end of the day, bathe them thoroughly, including washing their hair, and dress them in clean clothes.
Often, toddlers who are sensitive to outside allergens are also sensitive to indoor triggers as well. While a clean house tends to have fewer allergens, it’s impossible to be allergen-free. Dust mites are even found in the most sanitary of homes.
These microscopic bugs can collect everywhere there are tiny specks of dust – in pillows, stuffed animals, carpets, furniture, and bedding. Pet dander, a protein found on the skin and in the salvia of animals with fur, is a primary cause of indoor allergies, with cats being the biggest trigger.
Decrease the concentration of allergens in your home by:
- Testing for and remediating mold in your basement, crawlspace, and closets
- Banning tobacco smoke and vaping in your home
- Eliminating perfume and other scented products
- Cleaning your home with vinegar and avoiding harsh, scented chemicals
- Calling pest control to inspect for hidden cockroaches or mice
- Keeping your family pet groomed and out of your toddler’s bedroom
- Vacuuming often and choosing hardwood over carpet when you can
- Washing all bedding in hot water once a week and use allergen-proof covers
- Changing your HVAC system filters monthly, using HEPA filters, and dusting vents regularly
- Avoiding the use of humidifiers and vaporizers
Treatment for your toddler’s indoor allergies will be similar to treatment for outside allergies. Again, avoiding triggers is the best way to prevent irritating symptoms. Antihistamines, steroids, inhaled medications, nasal sprays, or decongestants may all be employed to give your toddler relief.
When your toddler celebrates their fourth birthday, ask your pediatrician about SLIT, Sublingual Immunotherapy Allergy Treatment. These drops, custom formulated for your child’s particular allergens, are placed under the tongue each night for about four years.
The drops are an alternative to injections and are administered at home, with no need for weekly office visits. SLIT helps your child become immune to allergens, eliminating allergic reactions, and has been shown to provide life-long relief, with little additional medical intervention needed.
Managing Allergies Long-Term
Allergies are uncomfortable and irritating at best and in some cases, life-threatening. When your toddler seems to always have a runny nose or cold symptoms, wheezes, frequently breaks out into a rash, or has a nagging cough,
Dr. Alzein recommends making an appointment with your pediatrician for allergy testing. The faster your toddler’s allergens are identified, the faster you can take the steps to prevent symptoms, making your toddler happier, more comfortable, and healthier.