Should Allergies Keep Your Child at Home?

Practical advice on how to keep allergies from interfering with your child’s life.

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on December 18, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

Do your child’s allergies keep him out of school or get in the way of some family outing? Each day, 10,000 children in the United States miss school because of their allergy symptoms.

Seasonal allergies -- allergic rhinitis or hay fever -- affects roughly four out of every 10 kids living in America. The symptoms, including sneezing, a stuffy nose, and itchy, watery eyes, can have a serious impact on your child’s ability to take part in school, sports, and outings with family and friends.

Allergies are chronic. But your child doesn’t have to miss out because of them.

Mary Beth Fasano agrees. Fasano is a clinical associate professor and director of the Allergy-Immunology Training Program at the University of Iowa. She is also a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Allergy & Immunology. She tells WebMD that children with severe allergies will benefit from correct diagnosis and a good treatment plan outlined by an allergy specialist. A child will also benefit, Fasano says, from collaboration between the child, parents, teachers, and the allergy specialist. “With this approach,” she says, “children should be able to participate in school, sports, and other activities without significant limitations.”

What Causes Allergies?

An allergy occurs when the immune system reacts to a substance that is normally not harmful. For instance, it might see pollen or cat dander as a threat. When that happens, the body produces antibodies. These tell allergy-fighting cells to release chemicals, including histamine, to fight the offending substance. These chemicals then cause people to experience classic allergy symptoms, like a runny nose or a scratchy throat.

Children’s Allergies and Asthma

Many children with allergies also experience exercise-induced asthma and allergic asthma. In fact, more than 2.5 million Americans under age 18 are affected by allergic asthma. Allergic asthma occurs when breathing passages become inflamed as a result of contact with various triggers. For instance, pollen or mold might trigger an asthma episode.

If your child has allergic asthma, the symptoms can go far beyond a runny nose and watery eyes. They can include such symptoms as wheezing and shortness of breath as well as anxiety. Untreated asthma can be a very dangerous condition. It’s important to check with an allergist if your child has not been diagnosed with asthma but is having symptoms that suggest asthma.

Allergy Medicines and Treatments for Children’s Allergies

The best allergy treatment for your child depends on what kind of allergy symptoms your child has, and how severe they are. Options include a variety of over-the-counter and prescription medications. These include antihistamines, decongestants, and steroids. If your child has asthma, he or she may be treated with inhalers. These medicines provide relief by calming inflammation and opening air passages. All medications have possible side effects, so it’s important to work with your child’s doctor to find the right allergy medicines.

If the usual medications don’t provide enough relief for your child’s allergies, allergy shots -- immunotherapy -- may be considered. Allergy shots work by exposing someone to increasing amounts of an allergen, such as pollen or mold, over time. This makes the immune system less likely to react to the substance.

Allergens at School

Children can develop allergies to many different things. And there are some allergens that are often found in classrooms. These include:

  • Chalk dust. This allergen can cause asthma attacks in children with allergies and asthma. If your child is allergic to chalk dust, he or she should sit a good distance away from the board. Also tell your child to be sure to wash his or her hands right away after writing with chalk.
  • Dust mites. Tiny as they are, dust mites are public enemy number one when it comes to chronic symptoms of allergies and asthma. They thrive in humid environments. For that reason, air conditioning can help keep them at bay.
  • Mold. The spores produced by molds that grow in damp, dark places can be dangerous for children with allergies and asthma. Make sure the school practices proper clean-up procedures if mold occurs. The school should also promptly fix any leaks that occur.
  • Pet dander. Dander is the dead skin cells that are sloughed off by animals. It can cause some children to have uncomfortable symptoms, including itchy eyes and stuffy nose. A child with allergies may also develop skin rashes after touching certain animals. Caged classroom pets are not usually a problem for children who are allergic to dander they breathe in. But if your child is allergic to dander, be sure your child’s teacher knows it is not okay for your child to hold or help care for the classroom pet.
  • Pollen. Your child may be allergic to pollens produced by various plants. Open windows in the classroom may aggravate these allergies. Ask that windows be kept closed and air-conditioning used. Pollen allergies can also put a serious damper on recess and sports practice. Making sure your child takes the appropriate medicine ahead of time will help prevent watery eyes, stuffy nose, and other symptoms.

Develop an Asthma & Allergy Action Plan

To keep allergies from interfering with your child’s life, focus on being prepared. One of the best things you can do is develop an allergy action plan. If your child has asthma, you will also need an asthma action plan.

Nathaniel Horne, MD, says a common concern for parents of a child with asthma is upper respiratory infections. Horne is an allergist with Allergy and Asthma Medical in New York City. He tells WebMD that the number of viral respiratory infections tends to increase when children return to school and the weather gets colder. “Upper respiratory tract infections are a classic trigger of asthma,” he says. “So parents of children with asthma need to have a good asthma action plan.”

Horne says there is a good plan available from the American Lung Association. It’s important to work with your doctor to customize the action plan. A good plan should be written and include a range of essential information about your child. At the minimum, you need to include information about your child’s allergy triggers, medications, and when to contact emergency professionals. Once you have the plan, be sure it’s always in reach. Also give copies of the plan to the school so that everyone who takes care of your child knows the plan.

You also need to speak with the teachers, coaches, and nurses at your child’s school. The idea is to let them know about your child’s allergies and the signs he or she might exhibit at the start of an attack.

Teach your child to recognize the symptoms of allergies and to know when to take medication. For instance, your child may need to learn to take his or her medicine before exercise or exposure to animals to prevent allergy symptoms.

Different states have different laws about which medications children are allowed to carry and use in school. You can find out what the laws are in your state by contacting the Allergy & Asthma Network Mothers of Asthmatics. If your state doesn’t allow children to carry and take their own medication, be sure you work with the school. That way you can ensure your child will have access to medications when they are needed.

Children’s Allergies and Sports

Childhood allergy symptoms do not usually keep a child from playing sports. They can, though, make playing sports less fun. And in some cases, sports can even be dangerous for children with severe allergies or allergic asthma.

Frank Virant, MD, tells WebMD that pollens, cold air, dry air, and prolonged activity -- more than 5 minutes without a break -- can all be triggers for children with allergic asthma and exercise asthma. Virant is an allergist at Seattle’s Northwest Asthma & Allergy Center. He is also a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics section on Allergy & Immunology. “But,” says Virant, “appropriate premedication can allow most children to participate in whatever they want to do.”

There are also certain sports and activities that may be less likely to prompt allergy symptoms and asthma problems. For instance, sports played in cold and dry places (think ice hockey or skiing) are more likely to cause exercise-induced asthma than sports in warm and humid environments. Sports like football, volleyball, or golf mix periods of rest with being active. That may make them better for someone with asthma than a sport like cross country or basketball. Whether or not swimming is a good sport depends on whether or not your child has an allergic reaction to the chemicals in the pool.

Childhood Allergies: Field Trips, Sleepovers and Travel

Field trips can be challenging for children with allergies to pollen or animal dander. Work with your child’s allergist ahead of time. That way, you and your child will both know what the best preventive medication is and what to do if allergy symptoms arise.

Sleeping over at a friend’s house where there are pets can also be challenging for a child allergic to dander. Make sure your child takes medication ahead of time in order to prevent allergy symptoms. Also, you need to make sure your child can recognize serious or life-threatening symptoms and knows when to seek help.

Travel presents a variety of challenges for children with allergies. Dust mites or mold are often found in carpeting in cars and hotel rooms. Allergy symptoms can arise anytime, anywhere. So it’s important that you or your child always have allergy medication at hand. That includes keeping it in a carry-on bag onboard an airplane.

When you do these things and have a plan in place to treat symptoms promptly if they occur, your child will be able to have fun and safe times away from home.