For one in seven U.S. children, including my two, spring brings more than baseball practice and dirty feet — it also brings sneezing, congestion, itchy eyes, sore throats, coughing, and runny noses. Seasonal allergies (also known as hay fever or allergic rhinitis) occur when something in the air, such as tiny tree particles, grass, weeds or pollen, comes into contact with nose membranes and triggers inflammatory chemicals called histamines.
The symptoms of seasonal allergies start now and can last through the fall, and while not life threatening, they make your tots feel miserable, interrupting their sleep, weakening their concentration, and keeping them from participating fully in school, sports, picnics, bike-riding lessons, trips to the zoo, etc.
Over-the-counter allergy medications can bring relief, but like any conventional drugs, they are not without drawbacks. My regular pediatrician suggested children’s Claritin, but I also asked a homeopathic pediatrician, Randall Neustaedter, OMD, for his opinion. “I don’t think decongestants and antihistamines are appropriate for kids, period,” he said. “They tend to make kids tired, and they don’t really address the problem. They’re like putting a Band-Aid on the symptoms. With a little more research, I learned that long-term use of antihistamines has also been linked to depression, anxiety and impaired thinking. Okay, so maybe I will avoid those.
But the kids are still itchy and drippy and cranky, and frankly so am I. Neustaedter suggests taking a proactive but more holistic approach: “You can help reduce and even eliminate your child’s allergy symptoms gently and naturally by reducing contact with allergic substances and boosting the immune system — or, in Chinese medicine terminology, ‘strengthening the constitution.’”
1. Clean inside air.
Outside, pollen is impossible to avoid, but indoor air is another matter. Get a HEPA air filter, which removes pollen and dust from air, and run it in your child’s bedroom 24 hours a day. The portable models work fine in smaller rooms and cost less than $100. Also, on windy days and while your child is sleeping, keep windows shut. If possible, rip out old carpet and cover air vents with filters, vacuum frequently when your child is not in the room, avoid ceiling fans, and wash all bedding and stuffed animals once a week.
2. Keep the nose clean.
It might take getting used to, but rinsing the sinuses with warm saline (salt water) is an excellent, age-old natural remedy that helps reduce contact with pollen and lessens allergy symptoms. Sinus rinse kits are available in stores and online for about $15. If you are familiar and comfortable with a neti pot, use one to flush pollen from nasal passages.
3. Provide a low-inflammation diet.
If your child has food sensitivities — and many kids do but don’t know it — foods such as dairy and wheat can be mucus forming and inflammation promoting. Consider limiting these foods before and during allergy season. Neustaedter also suggests using nutritional supplements to build up the small-intestine lining, which balances immune-system function. One to try is glutamine, an amino acid linked to improved intestinal-lining maintenance. Also, add more antioxidant-rich and anti-inflammatory foods, such as nuts, fish, grapes, oranges, apples and tomatoes to family meals. Because they fight free-radical cell damage (which interferes with the immune system), antioxidants can help boost immunity.
4. Try natural medicines.
When allergy symptoms do flare up, Neustaedter recommends Chinese herbal formulas, such as Xanthium, which relieves symptoms gently but immediately by acting like an antihistamine. Homeopathic remedies, made from natural substances, work by stimulating the body’s own healing mechanisms and can be beneficial for allergy sufferers; but, warns Neustaedter, “You need to see a homeopath and get the right medicine for the specific case.” Also, recent studies have shown certain common herbs to provide seasonal allergy support. For instance, several compounds found in rosemary — rosmarinic acid, luteolin and perillyl — can be very effective in normalizing the inflammation and immune response that accompany allergic reactions, and rosemary itself is very safe, even for children. But be sure to consult an experienced herbalist or holistic doctor before giving other herbs to children; some can be toxic if given improperly.
5. Try an allergy-soothing tea.
Warm liquids soothe the throat and nasal passages, so brew a pot of herbal tea for your child. (If your kids are like mine, you’ll want to sweeten it with a little honey.) Check out the natural grocery store, which probably carries several teas created specifically for allergy and sinus sufferers. The Art of Health’s Allergy Clearing Tea contains anti-inflammatory herbs licorice and rose hips, as well as detoxifiers including nettle and red clover to help calm inflammation and provide symptom relief.