Warm weather is a welcome relief to parents and kids who have been cooped up in the house all winter. But for many children, spring also sets off the allergies we call hay fever. "In our house, it's like clockwork," says Janet Coe, of Macungie, Pennsylvania. At the end of March, her 7-year-old daughter, Amber, starts sneezing, sniffling, and coughing. She takes prescription antihistamines to help keep her symptoms at bay until late June, when her allergies taper off. It's a similar story with Coe's two older daughters. "Spring allergies are a nuisance, but they're just part of our lives," she says.
The same is true for millions of other families. It's estimated that up to 40 percent of all U.S. kids suffer from allergic rhinitis, as hay fever is technically called, and the vast majority of these children's allergies are seasonal. In one study, children from families with a strong history of allergies said they were bothered more in the spring than in the fall. "Reactions to ragweed in the fall receive a lot of attention, but trees and grasses in the spring can trigger ferocious allergies," says Laurie Smith, M.D., who chairs the section on allergy and immunology at the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Hay fever is a misnomer, because hay does not cause seasonal allergies. The culprits are plant and tree pollens released in massive quan- tities at certain times of the year and ever-present molds that thrive in warm, moist, and shady surroundings. When tiny pollen grains or mold spores enter nasal passages, the immune system of an allergic child identifies the particles as invading organisms and produces inflammatory chemicals in the body. The result? Congestion, sniffling, sneezing, and itchy, watery eyes.
The biggest springtime allergy offenders are pollens from trees such as oak, ash, elm, hickory, box elder, pecan, and mountain cedar, and grasses such as timothy, johnson, Bermuda, redtop, orchard, sweet vernal, and Kentucky bluegrass. "Trees and grasses can release millions of grains of pollen a day, which can travel for hundreds of miles," says Mark Jacobson, M.D., an allergy and asthma specialist in Hinsdale, Illinois. "Even if you don't have trees in your yard, the pollen is still there." Children who live east of the Rockies tend to get hit the worst, especially from mid-April to early May.
Although allergens are difficult to avoid, there are steps you can take to minimize your child's misery. Our step-by-step guide will help your family survive the season with as few sniffles as possible.