No one can stop plants from blooming throughout the seasons, but we’ve got strategies to help sniffling kids feel better today, tomorrow, and for the long haul. Check out the best seasonal allergy treatments for every child. 

By Marisa Cohen, Richard Laliberte, and Nicole Harris
Updated November 25, 2019
Courtesy of Priscilla Gragg

After a long winter of sweaters and snow boots, the first signs of spring come as a welcome relief. But the change of weather often has an unwelcome side effect: seasonal allergies.

Many children are increasingly allergenic, and allergy season is lasting longer, says Jeffrey Demain, M.D., director of the Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Center of Alaska, in Anchorage. (The likely culprit behind this trend: rising global temperatures.) Plus, untreated allergies can lead to irritability and interfere with sleep—which is no good for anyone in your house, says Edith Schussler, M.D., a pediatric allergist at Weill Cornell Medicine, in New York City.

Combat sniffly noses and itchy eyes by learning about the most effective seasonal allergy treatments, both natural and medicinal. 

When is Allergy Season?

Allergies happen when the body perceives certain outside elements as a threat, and the immune system releases antibodies and histamine in response. The main triggers are pollen from trees in the spring, grasses in the summer, and weeds in the fall—although mold can also trigger allergies throughout the year. 

Depending on your location and allergen, symptoms may begin in February and last until the end of September. Anyone can experience allergies; generally, though, they start after age 3, peak in late childhood or the teen years, and subside in adulthood. 

Seasonal Allergy Symptoms and Complications

Seasonal allergy symptoms may include sneezing, runny nose with clear mucus, itchy and watery eyes, nasal congestion, sinus pressure, scratchy throat, and itchy nose and ears. Unlike the common cold, which lasts seven to 10 days, seasonal allergies may stick around for weeks or months at a time, says Fuad Baroody, M.D., director of pediatric otolaryngology at the University of Chicago Medical Center.  

Seasonal allergies are annoying, but untreated symptoms can negatively affect a kids’ life. For example, congestion might lead to “fatigue, poor concentration in school, and learning problems because kids won't be sleeping well at night,” says Dr. Todd Mahr, Director of Pediatric Allergy/Asthma/Immunology at Gunderson Lutheran Hospital in La Crosse, Wisconsin. He adds that constant nose-blowing and congestion may cause social tension, shyness, or teasing. 

What’s more, “because children's bones and teeth are still developing, chronic mouth breathing (due to allergy-causing congestion) can cause teeth to come in at an improper angle,” says Dr. Mahr.  “Kids who have allergies are also more likely to have ear infections and sinus infections.” Finally, allergies can worsen asthma in kids who suffer from it.

Diagnosing Allergies

The best way to get your child diagnosed correctly is to see your child’s pediatrician—preferably before starting at-home treatment. He/she may recommend you to a pediatric allergist. After taking a detailed history, the allergist will run skin prick and blood tests to pinpoint your kid’s specific allergies and effective treatments. 

Skin prick tests involve pricking a child’s arm or back with needles coated in certain allergens. The doctor will observe any skin reactions (like rashes or hives) to determine your child’s specific triggers. "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.

Natural Remedies for Seasonal Allergies

Doctors say that if your child is prone to seasonal allergies, the best way to treat symptoms is avoiding the allergens in the first place. Here’s how to help.

Learn about pollen counts. Keep updated on the pollen counts in your area and act accordingly. For example, if you know that ragweed is your child’s allergy trigger, limit the time he spends outdoors on the days when that particular pollen count is highest. It may seem cruel to make your children come inside when the weather is gorgeous, but this strategy really helps, experts say.

Allergy-proof your house. Keep your windows closed, especially when warm, dry conditions make it easier for pollen to travel on the breeze.  Be sure to put a clean filter in the air-conditioning system at the start of the season and replace it every two to three months. Many allergens thrive in moist environments, so use a dehumidifier to lower your home's humidity level.

Reduce pollen cling. Like a fine household dust, pollen clings to clothes, skin, and just about anything else it lands on. (Oak pollen, for example, forms a yellowish powder that you may notice dusting parked cars in springtime.) To keep it off your child, avoid hanging clothes, towels, or sheets outside to dry. When your child comes inside, use a damp washcloth to wipe her face, especially around her eyes. Just before bedtime, have your child take a bath or a shower. "Otherwise, she'll go to bed with a head full of pollen, which she'll react to all night long," says Robert Wood, M.D., director of pediatric allergy clinics at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, in Baltimore.

Protect her eyes. Itchy, red, teary eyes are one of the most aggravating symptoms of allergies. The itch stems from inflammation of the mucous membrane covering the whites of the eyes and inner eyelids. The fix: Keep pollen away from your child’s face. Dr. Schussler advises wearing sunglasses and a hat with a brim. Kids touch their face all the time, but with these accessories on, your child will be less likely to rub her eyes.

The Best Seasonal Allergy Medicine 

Most allergists recommend starting with the simplest over-the-counter treatment and adding more medications as needed. “We want to keep children on the lowest amount of medication possible to control symptoms so they have the least possible side effects,” Dr. Schussler says.

Antihistamines 

Antihistamines remain the most popular and least expensive line of defense against allergies. They don't prevent an allergic reaction but counter the effects of histamine. Most allergy drugs are formulated in doses for children as young as 3, which is generally the earliest that allergies begin in kids. Although antihistamines can provide relief, they're often sedating—a side effect you may not want for your child, especially if he's in school. Conversely, they can cause hyperactivity in some kids.

Consider starting with a daily dose of an over-the-counter, second-generation antihistamine such as Zyrtec (cetirizine), Allegra (fexofenadine), or Claritin (loratadine) in a children’s formulation. Unlike first-generation antihistamines such as Benadryl, these drugs were designed not to cross the blood-brain barrier, which means they are less likely to cause drowsiness or hyperactivity. If your child begins taking medication even before his symptoms kick in, he may not produce histamines at all. “I recommend that patients start taking an antihistamine on March 1 for a spring-pollen allergy,” Dr. Schussler says. Take it at night, since some newer medications can still cause drowsiness.

Prescription Medications

In many cases, an antihistamine should provide enough relief for your child to get through the day.  For children with severe allergies that don’t respond to over-the-counter medications, ask your doctor about prescription-strength antihistamines and sprays. 

A number of prescription antihistamines now on the market control the effects of histamine without making kids sleepy or lethargic. They're also convenient: You need to give these formulas to your child only once a day, making them easier to deal with than over-the-counter antihistamines, which typically must be administered every four hours.

Steroid Nasal Sprays 

Examples of steroid nasal sprays include Nasonex (mometasone; prescription only), Flonase (fluticasone), or Nasacort (triamcinolone acetonide). These daily-use sprays diminish swelling in the nasal passages and eyes. Flonase, for example, “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," says Dr. Baroody. 

Nasal sprays take a few days to kick in, and your child may not love the feeling of a spritz up his nose at first. But stick with it. A nasal spray can relieve the same symptoms that antihistamines do and also clear airways. 

Cromolyn (NasalCrom)

Cromolyn sodium, a nasal spray that until recently was prescription only but can now be bought over the counter in a children's formula, inhibits the release of histamine from special cells called mast cells. Each dose blocks a reaction for about four hours. Knowing in advance when allergies will strike can help: For NasalCrom to be fully effective, doctors often advise giving it to your child regularly for one to two weeks before allergy season. "It can also be helpful taken just before your child is exposed to an allergen on an as-needed basis," Dr. Smith says.

Eye Drops 

You can also use saline eye drops to wash away pollen. Or ask your child’s doctor about antihistamine eye drops such as prescription Pataday or OTC Zaditor. “The drops can sting a little, but if you refrigerate them, it takes a bit of that away,” Dr. Demain says. Antihistamine nasal sprays often help with eye symptoms as well.

Why You Should Avoid Decongestant Sprays 

Giving your child a nasal spray to relieve stuffiness is acceptable for short-term relief as long as you don't use it for more than a day or two. "If you use them longer than that, they can cause a rebound effect, in which the congestion becomes even worse," says Laurie Smith, M.D., who chairs the section on allergy and immunology at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Because seasonal allergies tend to last weeks or months, not days, Dr. Smith is cautious about recommending them at all. Oral decongestants don't pose a rebound problem, but they also don't address sneezing and itching and can make some children hyperactive.

Does My Child Need Allergy Shots? 

If you’ve tried pills, sprays, and rinses but your child continues to suffer, talk to his allergist about allergy shots (immunotherapy). This treatment exposes your child to increasing amounts of the allergen though shots. In the long run, this will make the body less reactive to triggers. 

“They are still the cornerstone of long-term treatment,” says Dr. Demain. “We have shots for almost every common allergen, and they also reduce the risk for developing new allergies and asthma.” The only real drawback? Getting your kid on board with a plan involving needles. The treatment starts out with two shots a week for up to two to three months, then tapers down to once a week, then every other week, and finally monthly.

After about three years, the allergy may be gone for good. Dr. Schussler suggests allergy shots after a patient has tried everything else and is at least 7 or 8 years old. “Some kids will be completely cured, and some still need to take an antihistamine when pollen counts are very high, but pretty much all children feel much better,” she says.

Although treatments are usually done through a series of shots in an allergist's office, the FDA has approved sublingual immunotherapy, or under-the-tongue drops, for dust mites, ragweed, and pasture grasses like timothy, according to the American College of Asthma, Allergy, and Immunology. (These tablets are kid-friendlier than shots.) "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.

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