It’s spring and your child has an annoying cough, stuffy nose, and sore throat. Is it just a cold, or could it be seasonal allergies? Colds and allergies have so many similar symptoms it can be tricky to differentiate between the two. With allergies on the rise, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, as many as 40 percent of children may be affected. Here’s how you can help to tell the difference.
Onset and Duration of Symptoms
Paying attention to the onset and duration of symptoms can help differentiate a cold from allergies. “A cold comes on fast and furious in the first few days, whereas allergies to pollen are typically slower to develop and last longer,” says Dr. Christine Cho, a pediatric allergist and immunologist at National Jewish Health.
A cold can last up to 10 days, but seasonal allergies typically last for weeks. Itchy eyes are often indicative of an allergy, while coughing and sneezing can occur for both a cold and allergies with postnasal drip.
Genetics and Triggers
Genetics can also play a role. If one parent has allergies, the child has a greater chance of having allergies. It also helps to look for common triggers. A child who has significant symptoms after being outdoors or being around an animal may be suffering the consequences of an allergic response. If a pollen allergy is suspected, it can be helpful to check daily pollen levels. National Jewish Health provides daily pollen counts for the Denver area on their website.
“Colorado has quite a bit of tree pollen in the air in the spring, like Juniper and Cottonwood,” says Cho. “These are specific to our area of the country. We have grass pollens, prevalent in the summer, and weed pollens, prevalent in the fall, which are similar to other states. Colorado is dry, so we don’t see many mold or dust mite allergies.”
Some parents may try treating either a cold or an allergy with over-the-counter medications with the idea that if allergy medicine works, it must be an allergy and vice versa. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has issued a statement regarding cold medicine for young children:
“Cough and cold medicines should not be prescribed or recommended for respiratory illnesses in children under four years of age. Research has shown these products offer little benefit to young children and can have potentially serious side effects. Many cough and cold products for children have more than one ingredient, increasing the chance of accidental overdose if combined with another product.”
While the AAP does not have a specific recommendation for allergy medications, it’s important to always check the label.
Testing for allergies can be very effective in helping determine whether your child has an allergy and which substances elicit a reaction. There are two ways to test for potential allergens, according to Cho. Blood work can be drawn or a skin-prick test can be performed. The skin-prick test can identify several dozen allergens by using a tiny drop of the allergen scratched onto the skin to determine whether there is a reaction.
Ella Schneckloth of Littleton says her son Eli had the skin-prick test after his allergies intensified when they moved to Colorado from Missouri. The test determined Eli has allergies to a few types of tree pollen and plants and weeds. His indoor allergies include dust, cat hair, and dogs.
“It can be an intense test,” says Schneckloth, “but an experienced practitioner will make it as quick as possible.” She says that the actual skin pricking during Eli’s test lasted about one minute.
How to Manage Allergies
If it is determined that your child does have allergies, Cho says there are currently three ways to manage them: avoidance, medications, and allergy immunotherapy.
- Avoidance: Close windows to block outdoor allergens and take a shower after spending time outdoors. It can also help to make sure pets who go outdoors aren’t carrying allergens in on the fur (give them regular baths). A HEPA filter in the bedroom of a child with allergy symptoms can be helpful for removing allergens.
- Medications: “The most effective medicine for nasal allergies is a nasal steroid spray,” says Cho, noting that these are available at most drug stores, but many kids don’t like using a nasal spray. “Technique is important for nasal steroid sprays because many kids can end up with irritation or nose bleeds if used incorrectly.” Another option is an over-the-counter antihistamine such as Zyrtec or Flonase.
- Allergy immunotherapy: In allergy immunotherapy, injections or tablets containing small amounts of the allergic substance are used to get the immune system to stop responding in an allergic way. “Immunotherapy is one way to really get to the root of the problem,” says Cho, “rather than just managing symptoms.”