Do you and your child have red, itchy, watery eyes? A constant runny nose? Coughing through the night? If so, allergies could be the culprit. Since allergies and asthma tend to be hereditary, children of parents with these conditions are likely to follow suit. In fact, allergies and asthma are two of the most common chronic health conditions of children in the United States.
What is an allergen? They’re typically harmless substances that the body has decided it doesn’t like. When a person has allergies, the immune system must work overtime to respond to allergen attacks. Although there is no cure for allergies, being aware of what causes them can help you and your family prevent flare-ups.
Allergens in the Home
Preventing exposure to tobacco smoke is the number one thing a parent can do to reduce allergies and asthma in their child. A cough that has been present for weeks or even months may be a sign of exposure to tobacco smoke. Many children with this allergy symptom are exposed to second and third hand smoke by a loved one who “only smokes outside” or “never smokes near the baby”. Second hand smoke is the smoke inhaled unintentionally by nonsmokers. Third hand smoke is the smoke left behind — the harmful toxins that remain in places that people have smoked previously. Third hand smoke can be found in the walls of a room, upholstery on the seats of a car or even in a child’s hair after a caregiver smokes near them.
Dust mites are microscopic parasites that feed on dead skin cells and live in mattresses, carpets and sofas. Unlike bed bugs, dust mites don’t bite but they do cause many problems like sneezing, eczema, wheezing and redness of the eyes. Symptoms can be prevented by covering mattresses and pillows in special allergen-proof covers that have a zipper closure. Bedding, including duvets and comforters, should be washed weekly in hot water. Stuffed animals can also be home to dust mites. These toys are typically not washable or cannot take washing in the temperatures necessary to kill the mites. However, putting the stuffed animal in the freezer for a day or two will kill the dust mites. Don’t forget to wipe down your freezer before and afterwards.
Pets can also be a source of allergies in children and adults. Some recent studies have shown that exposure to pets at a young age can decrease the risk of allergies. If you have pets, make sure to vacuum using a HEPA filter. HEPA stands for “high efficiency particulate air”. These filters can trap a large amount of very small particles, such as pet dander, that would otherwise be recirculated back into the air of your home. If possible, keep pets out of bedrooms.
Tips to Prevent Allergy Flare-Ups
If you suspect your child has allergies, talk with your pediatrician before starting any over–the–counter medications. The only sure way to prevent allergy flare-ups is to avoid what causes them.
Wash hands frequently to remove pollen, dust, pet dander and other allergens. Avoid touching the eyes and nose while playing with pets, cleaning or participating in outdoor activities to limit direct contact with allergens.
Keep windows closed and have the whole family change clothes after being outside when pollen is at its peak. Don’t forget about your four-legged family members – pollen can find its way into your home by sticking to their fur, so brush and bathe pets often.
Use a humidifier to keep nasal passages moist and to prevent irritation. This can be especially helpful during winter months when the air is drier. If you use a humidifier, clean it often to prevent the growth of mold, a common allergen. A steamy shower or bathroom is a free alternative to purchasing a machine.
Keep your house clean and dust–free to limit allergen exposure. Dust frequently, especially places often forgotten like ceiling fan blades, light fixtures and window treatments. Heavy drapes should also be removed. Keep surfaces free of dust and clutter. Even with frequent vacuuming, carpet can trap a large amount of allergens. When possible, remove carpet and rugs from bedrooms and other rooms where your children often play. If you must use throw rugs, wash them frequently in hot water.
Talk to your child’s pediatrician about treatments, such as antihistamines and nasal sprays. Many antihistamines can be found over-the-counter and if your child has seasonal allergies, it may be a good idea to start antihistamines before allergy season begins.
Consider using a nasal sinus rinse, if your child is old enough. Some children as young as two can tolerate nasal rinses. Also, a shower at the end of the day will help remove allergens that have stuck to mucus in the nasal passages.
Ask your child’s pediatrician about consulting an allergist to determine other treatment options, including nasal sprays, allergy drops and allergy shots. It is important to note, that very few kids require allergy shots.
Try breastfeeding if you are a new mom. Preventing allergies can start as early as infancy and breastfeeding in the first six months of life can actually help protect against allergies. In fact, breast milk has been shown to reduce the risk and severity of food allergies, asthma and eczema.
Rachel Dawkins, M.D., F.A.A.P. is medical director of the . Originally from the St. Petersburg area, Dr. Dawkins completed undergraduate and medical school at the University of Miami. She moved to New Orleans for residency at Louisiana State University and then spent six years as a faculty member and an associate program director for the pediatric residency program.