How to Tell If Your Child Has Allergies … or a Cold
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A child with a runny nose, congestion, and coughing: It’s a cold, right? Maybe not. Symptoms of respiratory allergies can look a lot like a cold, making it difficult for parents — and sometimes even doctors — to tell the difference.
“We see kids coming in with the diagnosis of recurrent infections and sometimes what they actually have is allergies,” says Nicholas Bennett, MD, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics and adjunct assistant professor of pharmacy at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and medical director of the department of infectious diseases and immunology at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford.
This is a common occurrence because there’s an overlap between allergy symptoms and the symptoms of an infection. Distinguishing between the two is particularly hard when spring approaches because winter respiratory viruses are still circulating while trees are producing pollen, Dr. Bennett says.
But there are some signs you can look for to determine what’s behind your child’s symptoms. Here’s what to do:
Take an inventory of your child’s symptoms.Respiratory allergies, whether seasonal or year-round, can cause sneezing, a runny or stuffy nose, and watery or puffy eyes. Postnasal drip can cause a sore throat. But there’s one more symptom to look for that will clue you in that your child may have allergies: itching of the eyes, nose, or roof of the mouth. “If things are really itchy, it tends to suggest allergies,” Bennett says.
There’s a caveat, however. Itchy eyes can also be a sign of pink eye, he says. If itchy eyes are also pink or red with a discharge that forms a crust, take your child to the doctor to be checked for pink eye.
Some people recommend looking at your child’s nasal mucus as a clue to whether he or she has allergies or a cold, but Bennett says this usually isn’t helpful because both a cold and allergies can cause a clear and runny discharge that may become thick and green over time.
Check your child’s temperature.If your child has a fever, it points to an infection rather than allergies, Bennett says.
Track the length of your child’s symptoms.A cold typically lasts a few days to a week, Bennett says. Respiratory allergies, on the other hand, can cause symptoms for weeks at a time.
Pay attention to the time of year.Spring and fall tend to be when allergy symptoms come on and are at their worst, although it can depend on what your child is allergic to, Bennett says.
Note activities that bring on your child’s symptoms.If you notice that your child is fine inside the house but starts sneezing after playing outside, it could point to allergies, Bennett says. That’s a good clue, particularly if your child is playing near plants or trees that could be causing the allergy. The same concept applies to a pet allergy: If you don’t have pets at home but your child sneezes at Grandma’s house where there's a cat, an allergy could be to blame.
And timing is important: Pollen counts are highest around midday, which could trigger symptoms that may not be present in the morning, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI).
Check under your child’s eyes.Some kids with allergies have allergic shiners, or chronic dark circles under the eyes, along with puffy eyelids and a sensitivity to light, the ACAAI states. It can be subtle, but this is a physical sign that doctors look for to diagnose allergies, Bennett says.
Look for a wrinkle in your child’s nose.Another physical sign that doctors check for is a wrinkle halfway up the nose. It comes from someone with chronic allergies rubbing, itching, and pushing up on the nose. Doctors will typically see it in older kids and adults, and it’s usually a sign that the person has had allergies for a long time, Bennett says.
Respiratory allergies affect more than 10 percent of children in the U.S., according to the ACAAI. If you think allergies are the culprit behind your child’s symptoms, a skin test or a blood test can tell you for sure. Bennett suggests keeping a diary of your child’s symptoms not only to share with your child’s doctor, but also for your own understanding of what triggers his or her symptoms so you can help your child avoid an allergen whenever possible.
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