Allergies caused by pollen or mold can lead to several miserable weeks of sneezing, runny nose and itchy, watery eyes. After watching your child sneeze, cough and wheeze their way through spring, it is natural to wonder if asthma is in their future.
Differences Between Allergies & Asthma
Allergies are the result of the body mistaking something harmless, like pollen, as an invader and creating antibodies to protect you. These antibodies lead to the release of histamine and cause the symptoms we associate with allergies: runny nose, sore throat, itchy skin and watery eyes.
Asthma, on the other hand, is a chronic condition that affects how well the lungs function. People with asthma have airways that are always a little reactive. When the airways become irritated it can cause an asthma attack, where the muscles in the airways tighten up and swell, making it hard to breathe.
“Asthma and allergies are related, but if your child has allergies it does not mean they will absolutely develop asthma,” says Bob Michael, MD, a pediatrician from Samaritan Lebanon Health Center. “It’s a different condition with different causes and different physiology in the body.”
According to Dr. Michael, most seasonal allergies are detected in childhood when kids are between 2 and 5 years old, since it takes at least two exposures before the body develops an allergic response. Asthma is typically diagnosed after age 5.
Asthma Risk Increases With Allergies
Although allergies don’t cause asthma, having allergies is a risk factor for asthma. Other risk factors include having a parent with asthma; certain lung infections during infancy (like RSV); and exposure to air pollution, secondhand smoke or certain chemicals.
Those with both allergies and asthma can suffer from a condition called allergic asthma, where seasonal allergies trigger an asthma attack. Other types of asthma can be triggered by cold air, exercise or infections. An allergic reaction due to other causes like food allergies, bee stings or medication can also trigger an asthma attack.
“For younger children especially, it’s good for parents to be aware of activities or places where their kids may have difficulty breathing,” says Dr. Michael.
Clues Your Child Might Have Asthma
- Persistent cough that gets worse at night.
- A wheezing sound while breathing.
- Complaints of pain or tightness in the chest.
- Sitting out games or other activities that their friends are participating in.
- Coughing fits brought on by stress, high emotions, laughing or crying.
“It is a hard condition to diagnose in young kids, so talk to an expert in pediatrics, like your child’s pediatrician, if you have a reason to suspect your child may have asthma,” says Dr. Michael.
How to Help Your Child With Allergies
You can tell allergies from a cold because kids will typically have clear mucus, no fever, and symptoms will last six to eight weeks. Dr. Michael also recommends trying a second-generation antihistamine like children’s Claritin, Zyrtec or Allegra to see if their symptoms improve.
To help your kids manage their allergies, it can help to try to pinpoint the cause:
- Keep a journal or use an app to track your child’s symptoms.
- Check pollen counts on a weather website or an allergy tracker like pollen.com and note what’s blooming on days your child has symptoms.
- Note school days, weekends or visits to other people’s homes. This can help you with environmental factors or pet allergies.
- Note the season and rainfall (mold allergies are more common in the fall).
If there does seem to be a link to allergies, their pediatrician can order more accurate allergy testing.
While kids won’t outgrow allergies or asthma, Dr. Michael reports most children can successfully manage these conditions and lead normal, active lives into adulthood.
“Allergies and asthma don’t have to mean sitting inside and missing out on all the fun of childhood,” says Dr. Michael. “Playing, running and athletics can all be open to them with the right management.”
Use a telehealth visit to talk with your child’s pediatrician about allergy or asthma concerns.
Learn more about adult asthma.