If you suspect an allergy, a pediatrician can start your child on a trial of an over-the-counter, non-sedating antihistamine like Children's Claritin (safe for children 2 and older), says Dr. Baroody. (Some oral non-sedating antihistamines contain a decongestant for stuffiness, but these make some children hyper or irritable, so it's best to avoid long-term use.) Pediatricians can also perform a blood test to help pinpoint what your child is allergic to, though you'd need to see an allergist to get a skin-prick test, in which tiny amounts of various triggers are placed just under the skin in order to see what produces a rash like response. "Skin tests tend to be slightly better than blood tests at showing what bothers your child the most and give you results right away," says Sakina Bajowala, M.D., an allergist in North Aurora, Illinois, and mom of two sons with seasonal allergies. (Because both tests can have false-positive results, an allergy diagnosis is usually made only when a child has obvious symptoms as well.)
Allergists can also fine-tune your child's treatment plan. "The most effective treatment is a nasal steroid spray, such as Flonase, approved for kids 4 and older," says Dr. Baroody. "The medication reduces the allergic inflammation that contributes to nasal tissue swelling. It also helps reduce the production of watery mucus, which contributes to chronic runny nose and postnasal drip." Allergists may need to recommend allergy shots, in which kids are injected with increasing amounts of an allergen until they become less sensitive to it. This regimen is typically reserved for children over 4 whose symptoms don't respond well to drugs. Although treatments are usually done through a series of shots in an allergist's office, the FDA may soon approve kid-friendlier, under-the-tongue drops, which are commonly used in Europe. "Research suggests that for patients with a limited number of allergic triggers, drops such as these are effective and safe enough to be given by parents at home," says Dr. Bajowala.
The most important point doctors want to make: Don't brush off a chronic runny nose or a nagging cough. "You may think it's not worth worrying about because it looks like a common cold," says Dr. Bajowala. But left unchecked, allergic rhinitis can make a child more vulnerable to sinus or ear infections, asthma, and even orthodontic problems (chronic open-mouth breathing can actually reshape the palate). Allergic kids are also prone to academic troubles, usually due to poor-quality sleep. "I see a lot of kids with symptoms similar to those of ADHD, when in fact they're just exhausted," says Dr. Berger. When their allergy symptoms improved, he adds, their behavior and focus did too. "Kids don't need to be miserable," Dr. Baroody adds. "Allergy treatments have come a long way. They're safe -- and they work."