Hay fever symptoms, including itchy eyes and a running nose, can be particularly distressing for children, who may find the symptoms harder to manage and won't always realise that they can ask for help.
According to Pierre Dugué, consultant allergist at Guy's Hospital in London, you should make an appointment with your GP to get a diagnosis if you think your child may have hay fever.
"It's important to know if it's hay fever, as it could be a non-pollen allergy such as dust mite or pet fur," says Dugué.
Dugué says hay fever has clear seasonal symptoms, which occur at the same time every year. "The strict diagnosis of hay fever is allergy to grass pollen. But your child could also be allergic to tree pollen, which usually comes at the end of spring, before grass pollen is produced.
"Allergy to tree pollen usually means allergy to birch, hazel or elder trees, which are in the same family."
Signs of hay fever in children
Hay fever often affects children at school, and while it is typically thought of as occurring in summer, the hay fever season in the UK starts much earlier in the year, during the spring. Look out for symptoms from March to October.
Sometimes hay fever can be confused with a virus. The way to tell the difference is by how long the symptoms last. If it's a virus, they should only last for a week or two.
Viruses rarely last for weeks and weeks. If your child has a constant runny nose and is sneezing every day for part of the year but not in the winter, it's a sign that they may be allergic to something.
Diagnosing your child's hay fever
It's important that hay fever is diagnosed so it can be treated and your child can take steps to avoid it. If your child only has symptoms in July and August on a very sunny day, it's almost certainly hay fever.
In this case, you don't really need a formal diagnosis. But if your child has symptoms all year round and you're not sure if it's hay fever, go to your GP for a diagnosis. Your child may have perennial allergic rhinitis.
Treating your child's hay fever symptoms
If your child doesn't like taking tablets, antihistamines are also available as a liquid. Other treatments include steroid nasal sprays.
Eye drops can be particularly useful if eye symptoms are one of the main symptoms of allergic rhinitis.
How to give your child eye drops
Below is some advice from the charity Allergy UK on how to give your child eye drops.
- Before you begin, follow directions such as washing hands in advance to avoid adding more irritants and infections.
- It can be easiest to administer eye drops by lying your child down and gently pulling down their lower lid – for example, have their head in front of you as they lie on the end of a bed.
- Older children sometimes like to sit in a chair while the drops are administered as they lean back and look up.
- When you add one drop gently into the eye, your child will naturally blink as a reflex and may then find the drops initially uncomfortable.
- When giving eye drops to young children, it can be helpful to have something you can use to distract them once the eye drops have been given, such as letting your child put a star on their chart.
- It can be helpful to role play with your child using a doll or teddy bear, telling them what is going to happen and letting them do it to their toy themselves after having their own eye drops administered.
- Remember to praise older children after medication, as it can also be uncomfortable for them. Mentioning to others how well your child is coping while they are present can boost their self-esteem and make them more compliant.
Preventing hay fever symptoms in children
Pollen is released in the early morning. As the air warms up, the pollen is carried up above our heads. As evening comes and the air cools, pollen comes back down.
This means that symptoms are usually worse first thing in the morning and early evening, particularly on days that have been warm and sunny.
To reduce your child's exposure to pollens:
- Keep windows closed at night so pollen doesn't enter the house.
- Buy your child a pair of wraparound sunglasses to stop pollen entering their eyes.
- Smear petroleum jelly (Vaseline) or another pollen blocker around the inside of your child's nose to trap pollen and stop it being inhaled.
- Wash your child's hair, face and hands when they come back indoors, and change their clothes.
- Don't let them play in fields or large areas of grassland.
- Use air filters to try to reduce pollen that's floating around the house.
- Keep the car windows shut when driving.
Read about treating hay fever.