During certain seasons, plants produce harmless, tiny particles called pollen that fertilize other plants. As pollen is released, it's transported by the wind through the air, frequently ending up in our eyes and nose. When this happens, the body can sometimes mistake the pollen for something harmful, releasing antibodies and histamine to combat the pollen, which can often cause an allergic reaction.
"If you take your baby for a walk outside and often notice a runny or stuffy nose, itchy eyes, and trouble breathing, your baby may have an allergy," says Renee Matthews, M.D., an asthma and allergy expert in Chicago. But pollen allergies are actually very rare in babies, and aren't typically seen until children are 2 or 3 years old at the earliest because they haven't been exposed to pollen enough to develop a reaction, says David Stukus, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
Pollen allergies usually occur during specific seasons, depending on which outdoor plants are releasing pollen, which can also vary by location. But tree pollen is usually released in spring, grass and weed pollen in summer, and ragweed pollen in autumn, Dr. Stukus says.
Itchy, watery eyes; sneezing; clear runny or itchy nose; and nasal congestion are the most common symptoms of a pollen allergy. In general, these symptoms will usually last a few months, unlike symptoms of upper respiratory infections caused by viruses, which usually last a few weeks. Other symptoms of a pollen allergy also include:
It's unusual for a baby to be tested for pollen allergies, but an allergist can help decide if a blood test or a skin prick test is necessary. A blood test involves withdrawing blood and measuring antibody levels toward certain allergens to see if the levels are high.
A skin prick test involves a needle or probe coated with a drop of solution containing a certain allergen. The needle (or several needles coated with different allergens) is then used to gently prick a baby's arm or back so the substance can enter under the skin's surface. The allergist will then wait to observe if there is a reaction to the allergen, such as the appearance of a hive or rash. "The skin prick tests can determine whether the problem is allergens, caused by pollen, or indoor allergens, caused by pet dander, dust mites, and cockroaches," Dr. Stukus says.
If the blood test or skin prick test determines your baby does have allergies, the doctor might prescribe medication or suggest a treatment plan. Otherwise, you can take certain measures to prevent your baby from coming in contact with pollen.
Avoid going outdoors at peak pollen times, usually the middle of the day; instead, head outdoors in the early morning or late evening, and try not to go outdoors during windy days. If you do need to run errands with baby during peak times, be sure to wash your hands and your baby's hands after you come back inside to remove any pollen, or bathe your baby to wash away traces of pollen. Keep windows closed and air conditioners on in the warmer months.
Limit dust and pet dander at home by laundering sheets and towels in hot water, and avoid line-drying clothes, as pollen can stick to them. Vacuum floors and carpets at least once a week, and use a vacuum with a HEPA filter, which removes some allergens. These simple changes to your routine can help you and your baby enjoy the outdoors in all seasons.