Does your child sniffle and sneeze when the seasons change? Determine if they’re allergic to something outdoors with our helpful guide for parents. 

By Nicole Harris
Updated November 30, 2020
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About 6.1 million children suffer from seasonal allergies, also called hay fever or allergic rhinitis, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. But how can a parent tell if their kid simply has a cold, or if their sniffles, sneezing, and itchy eyes point to something more? We spoke with experts about the symptoms of seasonal allergies you need to know. 

What are Seasonal Allergies?

Your child’s body may perceive certain elements—like pollen, mold, and grasses—as a threat. In response, their immune system produces antibodies and histamine. This starts an inflammatory reaction in different parts of the body, which causes allergy symptoms to develop.

The causes of seasonal allergies vary throughout the year. In general, the biggest offenders are tree pollen in the spring, grasses in the summer, and weeds in the fall. Mold may also act as an allergen in warm, moist environments. 

Since most people in America with allergies are sensitive to more than one thing—dogs and ragweed, grass and dust mites, for example—sniffles often persist for longer than one season. “And sometimes weather conditions like wind and rain can affect the amount of pollen in the air, and thus trigger allergy flare-ups in someone,” adds Todd Mahr, M.D., Director of Pediatric Allergy/Asthma/Immunology at Gunderson Lutheran Hospital in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Remember, too, that seasonal allergies run in families. If a parent has allergies, their child has about a 50 percent chance of developing them. If both parents are sneezing from spring through fall, the odds are even higher.

Credit: Illustration by Parents Staff; Getty Images (2)

Signs of Allergies in Kids

Babies generally don’t get seasonal allergies. That’s because they don’t spend enough time outside to develop adverse reactions to allergens, says Anne Miranowski, M.D., a pediatric allergist in Fairfax, Virginia. Symptoms generally appear when your child is 2 or 3 years old, although they can start much later. Most sufferers experience peak symptoms in later childhood or the teen years, and they grow out of seasonal allergies in adulthood.

Seasonal allergy symptoms vary from person to person, says Dr. Mahr. But here are some telltale signs your child may be allergic to something outdoors:

  • Sneezing
  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose with thin, clear mucus
  • Itchy, watery, puffy eyes
  • Scratchy throat
  • Sinus pressure
  • Itchy nose and ears
  • Coughing
  • "Allergic shiners" (dark circles under the eyes from chronic congestion)

Are you wondering, "how long do allergies last?" People generally get symptoms at the same time each year. The signs of seasonal allergies stick around until the triggering substance leaves the air—usually within a few weeks or months.

Allergies vs. Cold: How to Tell the Difference

Seasonal allergies often present similarly to the common cold. So how can you determine what, exactly, is causing your child’s symptoms? "A typical cold lasts only seven to ten days," says Fuad Baroody, M.D., director of pediatric otolaryngology at the University of Chicago Medical Center. "Children with allergies might suffer for weeks or months with no break." 

The exact symptoms tend to differ as well. Colds trigger body aches and thick yellow or green mucus, while allergies cause clear, liquidy mucus. Seasonal allergies don’t come with fevers, and they also have a repetitive pattern. For example, if your child sniffles and sneezes after playing outdoors in the fall season, they might have a ragweed allergy

It's also common for kids with seasonal allergies to be misdiagnosed—usually by teachers—as having pinkeye (conjunctivitis). The biggest difference is that pinkeye usually occurs in one eye, whereas allergy symptoms tend to affect both. You can also examine the goop coming out of your child's eyes: If it's clear and watery, allergies are probably the culprit; if it's thick or yellowish, it could be pinkeye.

What To Do If Your Child Has Seasonal Allergy Symptoms

Does your child experience allergy symptoms in the spring, summer, or fall? Dr. Mahr recommends keeping a diary of when they occur. “When you see your doctor, they’ll want to know if there is a pattern,” he explains. Your pediatrician will determine the best treatment plan; they may simply recommend an over-the-counter antihistamine like Zyrtec or Claritin. 

For severe allergy symptoms, you may need to visit to an allergist. This specialist may decide on blood or skin prick testing—”putting small amounts of allergens on the skin, or just below it, to look for a reaction and detect what you're allergic to,” explains Dr. Mahr. The allergist might also decide on allergy shots. With this treatment, children receive increasingly concentrated doses of the allergen they react to, which over time produce changes in the immune system and makes the body less reactive.

You can also take natural steps to reduce seasonal allergy symptoms: Keeps doors and windows closed. Avoid going outside during peak pollen times. Have your child shower and change clothes after playing outdoors. Invest in an air purifier or filter.

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