If your child can’t seem to shake off their common cold symptoms even when the weather warms up, it’s possible they may suffer from hay fever. While pesky snuffles are quite common in winter, babies and toddlers with the first signs of hay fever may get runny noses more than most.
Hay fever is a common allergic reaction to pollen and causes the membranes inside the nose to become inflamed, leading to sneezing and a runny nose. But if this is the first time your baby has suffered from hay fever, those symptoms will just look like the common cold.
“Hay fever affects 1 in 4 people in the UK,” says Holly Shaw, a clinical nurse advisor at the charity Allergy UK. “It's something that could start in childhood, but it isn't often seen in babies and toddlers.”
Seasonal hay fever occurs mainly in spring and summer and affects people allergic to pollens. If your baby suffers from asthma, Holly notes that it’s very important to make sure hay fever is kept well under control, because if not it could impact their asthma and increase the risk of an asthma attack.
What are the symptoms for babies and toddlers?
Hay fever symptoms are caused when his body has an over-reaction to an allergen – in this case, pollen – and releases the chemical, histamine. Also known as rhinitis, this seasonal allergy can appear at any age.
Common hay fever symptoms include:
• Runny nose
• Blocked nose (either one or both nostrils)
• Red itchy and swollen watery eyes
• Itchy ears, nose, throat and roof of the mouth
Children with hay fever commonly also have other sensitivities, like asthma, eczema or food allergy. In some cases, hay fever can also:
• Make asthma more difficult to control
• Increase the chance of sinus infections
• Affect your child's learning and performance
• Lead to bad breath, a husky voice and/or a sore throat
• Cause more frequent eye infections because children rub itchy eyes.
How to tell if its hayfever rather than a cold
While Holly points out these symptoms are quite broad and can be seen in many other childhood ailments, what sets hay fever aside is the fact it’s a seasonal allergy.
“It happens at a certain time every year and despite having ‘fever’ in its name hay fever is not associated with having a high temperature, whereas if a child is ill with a viral or bacterial illness they’ll most likely have one,” she says.
One of the key differences is the colour of the nasal discharge (your snot): it's more likely to be yellowish/green in colour in colds; while in hay fever, it's clear.
How to diagnose hay fever in babies
If this sounds like your child, then consult your GP. She will ask you if your baby, or anyone else in the family, has asthma, eczema on their skin or other allergies, as this gives a higher risk of hay fever. She’ll make a diagnosis after gently examining the inside of his nose, supported, if necessary, by allergy tests, like you can do for food allergies.
If you can’t get an appointment with your GP, Holly recommends visiting your local pharmacist who will also be able to recommend suitable treatments and medications for your baby or toddler.
The best way to reduce the frequency of your child's hay fever is to identify what causes your child's allergic reaction and then try to avoid contact with it, or at least minimise contact.
When is hay fever most common?
Hay fever is at its peak between April and September, but your child may suffer for a shorter period if he is only allergic to a particular type of pollen.
An allergy to grass pollen is the most common, and this tends to start affecting sufferers in May before calming down in July. But if he’s allergic to tree pollen, symptoms may last from April to September.
One way to help him is to reduce his exposure. Keeping a symptom diary to identify patterns of exposure will help you work out what triggers his hay fever.
Some things, such as playing near freshly mown grass, will be problematic for most children with hay fever, but you’ll find that certain things or places are tricky for your child in particular.
As well as pollen (which can be from grasses, flowers or trees) other triggers include:
• Animal fur or hair (dander)
• Dust mites
• Mould spores
• Cigarette smoke
Hay fever cannot be cured, but there are a number of ways you can improve the symptoms and give your child some welcome relief.
Treatments for hay fever in babies and toddlers
1) A non-sedating antihistamine
This is the main treatment for hay fever symptoms.
“Non-sedating antihistamine is really important because we don't want children to be affected at school and childcare by the side effects of the drowsiness of the antihistamines,” says Holly.
These can also come in liquid form so your little one can take them. Your pharmacist will also be able to recommend other suitable over the counter treatments available.
2) Check the pollen count
Check the pollen count on the local weather report or by the Met Office website before planning a trip out, and avoid any trigger activities when it’s high.
Hot weather, windy conditions, or just after a thunderstorm can cause a spike in pollen levels. When the count is very high – more than 50 grains of pollen per cubic metre of air – you might want to consider an indoor activity.
3) Use an allergen barrier balm
Holly advises applying this around the outer aspects of his nostril to help trap pollen particles before they get up into the nose and cause that allergic response.
4) Get out the sunnies
Buy some sunglasses to stop pollen from getting in their eyes. Holly recommends a wrap-around eye style. They are also a necessity to help with sun protection too.
5) Keep the windows closed
Pollen can come in through the windows causing your little one irritable symptoms overnight, so while it may be tempting to keep them open during the warmer weather, make sure they’re shut.
6) Regular changes
Pollen grains will also get stuck in your little one’s clothes. So, if you come back from the park and they're sneezing, change their outfit, wash their skin, hair, face and clothes and hang washing to dry inside when the count is high.
7) Try a natural solution
You might be apprehensive about what is and isn’t safe to give your children and be worried about potential long term side effects, so finding the right treatment can be daunting.
Using natural products such as a seawater nasal spray can be beneficial and recommended by GPs and consultants to help manage symptoms as the first step of the treatment process.