Seasonal Allergies: What’s Happening and How to Distinguish them from Other Types of Illness

In light of new social norms around personal health, social distancing and isolation, it may be especially alarming if your child displays any symptoms of respiratory illness. As allergy season ramps up through spring and summer, the likelihood of sniffles, scratchy throat and other telltale signs of allergic response is beginning to increase. While children are very rarely affected by COVID-19, this year parents are likely on high alert for any indication that their child is anything other than 100% healthy. To help ease your mind and further understand what is happening in the body when allergies occur, let’s take a look at what creates seasonal allergies, and why they affect some people more than others.

The Ins and Outs of Allergies
Most seasonal allergies are a response to pollen, usually from non-flowering plants that rely on wind pollination to reproduce. Because wind pollination is much less an exact method of reproduction and more of a gamble, wind pollinating plants, including massive gymnosperms like pine and fir trees, produce large amounts of pollen in hopes that the wind will carry their DNA to several potential new spouses.

An allergy to that pollen occurs when the body, which runs a tight ship of an immune system, perceives it to be a dangerous invader. Pollen, of course, is not in and of itself a threat to the body’s wellbeing, but for various reasons we’ll discuss further, the immune system has labeled it dangerous and therefore something to be expelled at all costs. In effect the body is creating a response out of proportion to the nature of the so-called “invader.”

Bodies with an allergic response to pollen have within the nasal passages mast cells that have created an antibody specific to that pollen. For people with this antibody, the immune system responds in a similar way it would respond to bacteria or a virus detected in the system. There’s an increase in mucous production, dilation of the blood vessels within the nose and sometimes watering eyes. The difference, however, is that histamine release is specific to an allergic reaction. Histamine, in addition to other chemicals within the body, creates the redness, itchiness and swelling specifically associated with allergies. There is also a difference in mucous production. Allergies create clear, runny mucous, while colds turn mucous cloudy or discolored due to the buildup of while blood cells within it. Allergies also tend to last longer than colds, essentially as long as the plants creating the allergy are pollinating.

Nip It in the Bud
Luckily there are ways to treat, and even prevent, allergic response in children. Studies have shown that the best way to prevent allergies in children is to expose them to nature, including animals and the outdoors, early and often. Making sure they spend ample time outside as a baby and young child will teach their bodies early on that pollen is not a threat, and having dogs or cats in the home, especially before babies begin to walk, can do wonders to build a healthy microbiome. Studies have also shown that sharing the mother’s beneficial bacteria is unparalleled in its ability to support a healthy, balanced immune system.

When we look at the history of seasonal allergies in humans, we see that they are only first mentioned around 1870. Even then, mention of it is sparse until after 1900. The reason for this is actually quite simple: during and after the industrial revolution, more and more of the population moved to cities, seeking jobs indoors and spending less time outside. Before the late 1800’s most Americans lived in rural communities, spending ample time outdoors, often with farm animals. The evolution of allergies was so unique that it was referred to as “the rich person’s disease,” because it only effected those wealthy enough to stay indoors. However, as people spent more time inside, eventually with better insulation and air conditioning, exposure to natural elements decreased to a point that simple pollen grains became unrecognizable to more than a third of the population. Even recent studies show that children living on or near farms experience far fewer allergies than their urban counterparts.

Allergy Treatment Beyond Medication
If your child has already developed seasonal allergies, there are ways to manage and even treat them. It may be beneficial to take an allergen test in order to ascertain which plants affect them, and then track the pollen count of said plants. When those plants are pollinating, sending kids outside with light outer layers can be helpful, as pollen grains easily attach to fabrics. Removing outer layers as soon as they return indoors can lower allergic response, in addition to gently washing hands and rinsing the eyes and nose with a simple saline solution. This will help to prevent itching and redness later in the evening. Changing sheets and pillowcases regularly will also lower allergic incidents. An air purifier may also be a good option for your family.

If you choose to use antihistamines, they are most effective at preventing histamine release, meaning that during allergy season they are best given daily, before exposure to pollen might occur. They may still be helpful after exposure, but you will get the maximum benefit if given before your child goes outdoors. There are also steroidal nasal sprays available which you may want to discuss with your pediatrician.

A more long term, but generally permanent, option to treating allergies is immunotherapy, either with allergy shots or a sublingual liquid. Both methods rely on introducing minute amounts of the allergen over time, usually several years, so that the body slowly becomes accustomed to it and no longer sees it as a threat. This can be a helpful option for children with especially severe allergies.

In the meantime, other ways to lessen allergic response in children include regular sleep and exercise, in addition to diet. Fruits and vegetables, especially those high in beta carotene, can help to manage inflammatory responses. Even onions can be helpful, as they are prebiotic, providing nutrition for helpful probiotics in the system. Eating fish, higher than other meats in Omegas, at least a couple times a month can also lessen the intensity of allergic reactions.

There are lots of options for ways to manage allergies from home, and even ways to strengthen immune systems in children so allergies never develop. Encourage them to play outside early on, wrestle with the dog, and have fun. Visit the forest and the seaside.

And while of course it’s important to clean up, beware the temptation to over-sanitize. Washing hands before eating and after time in public places is advisable, but using anti-bacterial products too often will do more harm than good. If children do have allergies, rinse their faces and wash their linens regularly. It may mean the difference between an allergic response and a restful night’s sleep. If all else fails, discuss immunotherapy with your doctor. Many children are able to grow out of allergies, running and playing outdoors carefree no matter the season!
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