By Tim Johnson
Spring is a season that has its pros. The sun shines brightly, warm winds blow, and rain showers roll in to make everything bloom again. But all of this, alas, contributes to one of spring’s biggest cons — seasonal allergies. Once the earth awakens and trees begin to bud, pollen is produced and released into the wind — first trees, then grass and, finally, weeds — triggering a cascade of reactions in those affected, until the first frost of the fall provides relief. Coastal British Columbia kicks things off with its tree pollen season, usually beginning in March, with points east following four to six weeks later.
You need at least two or three seasons of exposure in order to develop a pollen allergy, says Dr. Liliane Gendreau-Reid, a pediatric allergist in Victoria. She notes that the majority of allergic kids will begin to show symptoms at around age seven or eight, with some doing so at five or six. Itchy, swollen, red and watery eyes, sneezing, and clear emissions from a runny nose are the most common symptoms.
True or False? Closing the windows can help an allergic child.
Avoiding exposure to pollen should be your first line of defence. Keeping windows shut is a good idea — at home and especially in the car — but if you must open your windows, avoid having them open in the early morning (from about 5 a.m. — 10 a.m.) when plants begin to flower and the concentration of airborne pollen tends to be highest. If your child is showing very strong symptoms, you may want to keep her inside during sunny, windy days, when the most pollen is in the air. Avoid drying bedding and linens on an outdoor clothesline, make sure that your central air conditioner has a
well-functioning filter, and use a freestanding high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) purifier in the bedroom to suck the pollen out of your indoor refuge. And, happily, says Dr. Gendreau-Reid, scheduling a beach vacation during your child’s peak allergy time can also help.
True or False? Antihistamines are the only way to provide effective relief.
form of treatment — doctors usually recommend second-generation drugs such as Claritin, Allegra, Reactine and Aerius, which don’t cross the blood/brain barrier, and therefore do not cause drowsiness. For younger kids, seek out the children’s dosage, which is usually available in syrup form. But there are other ways you can help your child. Give her a bath (or, if she’s older, suggest a shower) before bed. “The pollen can get in her hair, and it will get in her nose and eyes all night,” says Dr. Miller. To reduce sneezing, rinse the inside of the nose with a gentle saline solution. If your child doesn’t like drops, look for a pediatric mist, which Dr. Miller recommends testing on yourself before administering (to ensure the flow isn’t too strong). In more severe cases, see your doctor for a prescription nasal spray or to
discuss allergy shots (called immunotherapy).
True or False? Cutting out dairy is a good way to control seasonal allergies.
While the word on the street is that eliminating milk products or certain other foods can help, Dr. Gendreau-Reid advises parents against it. “You can harm your child by putting him on diets to try to prevent allergies,” she says. “And usually these diets omit important food groups, which is my pet peeve.”
True or False? There is a genetic component to allergies.
Having one parent with any type of allergy gives a child an approximately 30 percent chance of having allergies, and with two allergic parents, that probability increases to about 50 percent. However, it’s the tendency that is inherited, not a specific allergy, so while a parent may have a food allergy, it may be manifested in the child as hay fever.
True or False? Seasonal allergies are for life — if you have them as a child, you will have them as an adult.
Dr. Gendreau-Reid explains that while it’s very rare for a child to lose her symptoms while still young — in fact, they will probably get worse during her teen years — it is common for symptoms to improve with age. Noting that very few people will still have seasonal allergies after age 60, Dr. Gendreau-Reid adds that, after age 25, a large percentage of allergy sufferers will get better. However, there is no evidence to support the notion of a seven-year cycle. “Like all auto-immune diseases, allergies tend to wax and wane, so that’s probably the background — but there’s nothing special about seven years at all,” says Dr. Miller.
True or False? There are links between food and seasonal allergies.
In what is known as the “food/pollen syndrome,” people who are allergic to trees or grass pollen can also have a reaction to foods with the same molecular structure; for example, tree nuts such as hazelnuts or almonds, or even fruits such as peaches or apples. Dr. Gendreau-Reid says that localized symptoms may occur. It’s like swallowing pollen, but anaphylaxis rarely occurs; an itchy mouth and throat are common reactions. She observes that this is most likely to occur in the teen years, and among those with severe seasonal allergies. Dr. Gendreau-Reid also notes that those who are born with an allergy to foods such as milk, eggs or peanuts are indeed predisposed to developing seasonal allergies as well.
True or False? There are links between allergies, eczema and asthma.
There is in fact an itchy, wheezy, sneezy trifecta — being an allergic (or atopic) person puts you at a greater risk for all of the allergy fields, says Dr. Miller. “There’s an allergic march, which means that if you’re prone to have allergies, the first thing that may manifest is eczema. So when we see a child with eczema, we know he is at higher risk to go on and develop asthma and allergic rhinitis.” However, Dr. Miller notes that the march is certainly not inevitable — there are plenty of cases where a child with eczema does not go on to develop either of the other conditions. “They’re not completely overlapping on the pie chart,” she says.
Contributing editor Tim Johnson, who happily does not have seasonal allergies, has written extensively for the Canadian Medical Association.
Keep reading for safety strategies on anaphylaxis and peanut allergies.