Spring is here and it brought the pollen! Control allergies and enjoy the outdoors.

Spring is a beautiful time of year. The flowers bloom, the birds chirp… it’s like we’re all awakening after a long, cold winter. But with the flowers (and birds) comes pollen. And with pollen comes allergies. I don’t want anyone to be afraid to enjoy the beautiful outdoors, so learn to control allergies.

Why treat allergies?

I often hear parents say that they don’t want to give their kids medicine to treat allergies because, well, it’s medicine. They prefer to be natural and the symptoms don’t seem “that bad”.

Before you decide if the symptoms require treatment or not, be sure to recognize all the potential consequences of allergies. It’s not just a runny nose and sneezing.

Allergies can impair sleep (leading to all the problems associated with not enough sleep) in addition to the annoying symptoms of itching, coughing, sneezing, runny nose, and watery eyes.

Some kids get a crease across their nose from wiping – AKA the “allergic salute”.

Others get purple circles under their eyes called allergic shiners.

For people with asthma, allergies are a known trigger. It’s especially important that people with wheezing tendencies keep up on allergy prevention and treatments.

Some will chronically mouth breathe, which can affect the growth and development of their jaw, lead to bad breath, and increase the risk of cavities. Dr. Deborah Burton, an ear, nose, and throat specialist, discusses these and other consequences of mouth breathing in one of her DrMommaSays blogs.

How do you know it’s allergies?

Learn to diagnose allergies, what to do when you have them and what you risk if you don't treat them.
Learn to diagnose allergies, what to do when you have them and what you risk if you don’t treat them.

Allergies can cause runny nose, headache, congestion, sneezing, watery eyes, itching eyes, sore throat, itchy throat, and itchy skin. Not all symptoms need to be present.

An upper respiratory tract infection (AKA common cold) can also cause a runny nose, headache, congestion, sneezing, watery eyes, and sore throat. The difference is the cold symptoms tend to not last as long as allergies. There also could be a fever, body aches, and a general feeling of “not well” with viral infections.

Seasonal allergies tend to follow a seasonal pattern, so they can be easier to recognize than allergies to indoor allergens.

These days it’s easy to track pollen counts online. If you realize that every day the counts for one type of tree or grass is elevated you have symptoms, that’s strong support that you’re allergic to that plant.

Of course, it’s possible to get a cold on top of your allergies, which adds to the confusion sometimes.

Treatments to control allergies

It is best to treat before the symptoms get bad. Treatments include not only medicines, but also limiting exposure.

Use what you can to prevent and treat allergies, which most often means using more than one of the following treatments.

Limiting Exposure:  

Limiting exposure can help decrease symptoms.

Avoid Bringing allergens into the Home

Remove clothing and shoes that have pollen on them when entering the house to keep pollen off the couch, beds, and carpet.

Keep the windows closed. Sorry to those who love the “fresh air” in the house. For those who suffer from allergies, this is just too much exposure!

Beloved pets cause unique issues

If someone’s allergic to animals or suffers from year long symptoms, learn if your family pet is a problem.

When you have pets that go outdoors and then into the home, bathe them regularly.

Don’t let pets on the couch or beds and keep them out of the bedrooms of allergic sufferers.

If you know a family member is allergic to an animal, don’t get a new pet of this type!

If you already have a loved pet someone in the home, consider allergy shots against this type of animal. Talk to your pediatrician and consider a trip to an allergist.

Wash and clean

Wash towels and sheets weekly in hot water.

Vacuum and dust weekly. Consider cleaning home vents. Consider hard flooring in bedrooms instead of carpeting.

Wash stuffed animals and other toys regularly and discourage allergic children from sleeping with them.

There are many types of air filters that have varying benefits and costs. For information on air filters see the Environmental Protection Agency’s interactive page on indoor air quality.

Smoke is a “no”

Keep smoke away. Smoke is an airway irritant and can exacerbate allergy symptoms.

Remember that the smoke dust remaining on hair, clothing, upholstery, and other surfaces can cause problems too, so kids can be affected even if you don’t smoke near them.

And for those of you who vape, it’s not better. We’re still learning the risks  of e-cigarettes because vaping is relatively new, but early data supports staying away from e-cigs!

Wash it off of you!

Wash hair, eyelashes, and nose after exposures — especially before sleep. They all trap allergens and increase the time your body reacts to them.

Learning to rinse your nose

I have found the information and videos in Nasopure.com‘s library to be very helpful. You can teach kids as young as 2 years to wash their noses. Note: I have no financial ties to Nasopure… I just love the product and website!

I am an Amazon Affiliate member, so if you buy from this Amazon link, I do get a small percentage.

If you wear contacts

If itchy eyes are a problem for contact lens wearers, a break from the contacts may help. Talk with your eye doctor if eye symptoms cause problems with your contacts.

Medications

I don’t want kids with outdoor allergies to be afraid to go outside, so taking medicines to keep the symptoms at bay while out can help.

Antihistamines

Antihistamines work to block histamine in the body. Histamine causes the symptoms of allergies, so an antihistamine can help stop the symptoms.

Some people respond well to one antihistamine but not others, so sometimes you must use trial and error to find the right one.

In general I prefer the 12-24 hour antihistamines simply because it’s very difficult to cover well with a medicine that only lasts 4-6 hours, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and they’re less sedating. Long acting antihistamines include loratadine -Claritin (24 hour), fexofenadine- Allegra (12 hour for kids, 24 hour for teens and adults), and cetirizine- Zyrtec (24 hour).

Different antihistamines work better for some than others. Personally loratadine does nothing for me, fexofenadine is okay, but cetirizine is best. I have seen many patients with opposite benefits. You will have to do a trial period of a medicine to see which works best.

If they make your child sleepy, giving antihistamines at bedtime instead of the morning might help.

Prescription antihistamines are available, but usually an over the counter type works just as well and is less expensive. Insurance companies rarely cover the cost of antihistamines these days.

Antihistamine and decongestant combinations

Antihistamine and decongestant combinations are available but are not usually recommended. Decongestants can cause dizziness, heart flutters, dry mouth, and sleep problems, so use them sparingly and only in children over 4 years of age.

Once control of the mucus is achieved, a decongestant isn’t needed. Giving a medicine that isn’t needed just increases the risk without increasing the benefit.

If you need a decongestant initially, you can use one with your usual antihistamine.

Most decongestants on the shelves are ineffective. If you ask the pharmacist for pseudoephedrine, it is available behind the counter. It was replaced by phenylephrine years ago due to concerns of methamphetamine production, but works a little better than phenylephrine.

Decongestants do NOT fix a cold, they only dry up some of the mucus.

Nasal spray steroids and antihistamines

Nasal spray steroids and antihistamines are available over the counter or as a prescription. An office visit to discuss the value of these for your child and proper use is recommended.

Nasal steroids are often the preferred treatment based on effectiveness and tolerability.

If your child resists nose sprays

You can help your kids get used to nasal sprays with saline sprays. Saline is simply salt water, so it is okay to let your kids practice with these without risking any overdose of medication.

Eye Drops

Eye drops can help alleviate eye symptoms.

They are available both as over the counter allergy drops and as prescription allergy eye drops. If over the counter drops fail, make an appointment to discuss if a prescription might help better. Most insurance companies don’t cover prescription allergy eye drops well, so you might want to check your formulary before asking for a prescription. This is usually available on your insurance website after you log in.

If your child resists eye drops

Tips to administer eye drops include washing hands before using eye drops, put the drop on the corner of the closed eye (nose side) and then have the child open his eyes to allow the drop to enter the eye.

Montelukast

Singulair (Montelukast) works to stop histamine from being released into the body.

It helps control both allergies and asthma and is best taken in the evening.

Once a person has been on montelukast for a couple of weeks, they usually don’t need an antihistamine any longer.

Montelukast is available only by prescription, so make an appointment to discuss this if your child might benefit.

Steroids

Steroids decrease allergic inflammation well. These include both oral steroids for severe reactions (such as poison ivy on the face or an asthma attack) and inhaled corticosteroids for the nose (or lungs in asthma).

The nasal steroids are discussed above and are highly recommended for kids and adults who tolerate putting a spray in their nose.

Other steroids require a prescription, so a visit to your provider is recommended to discuss proper use.

What if all of the above isn’t helping to control allergies?

Maybe it’s really not allergies.

There are many things that can seem to be allergies but aren’t. If proper treatment is not working, reconsider the diagnosis.

It’s possible that the allergy treatment is working, but you caught a cold on top of the allergies. Both are common, so they can occur together.

Allergies to things other than foods are rare before 2 years of age. If you’re treating allergies in an infant or toddler, be sure to keep your pediatrician in the loop.

I’ve known people who are treated for years by an allergist for allergies, but when they’re tested due to a poor response, they have no allergies. They might have frequent infections or other irritants like smoke exposure. Learn to control these issues too, starting with good hand washing, avoid touching your face, and avoiding smoke.

Allergy testing

Allergy testing is possible by blood or skin prick testing, but can be costly. Not to mention the fact that kids tend to not like needles, which are used with most testing.

Allergy testing isn’t recommended for most allergy sufferers. It can be used to guide allergy immunotherapy, which involves routine allergy shots. Most suffers don’t need allergy shots, but if you think your child would benefit (and allow them), talk to your doctor.

In most cases I don’t find test results very helpful for environmental allergens because you can’t avoid them entirely. You can limit exposures as discussed above, regardless of test results.

Tracking patterns and symptoms to identify allergies

By tracking seasonal patterns over a few years can identify many of the allergens. You can still treat as needed during this time. Reports of pollen and mold counts are found on Pollen.com.

Rather than testing, note animal exposures and household conditions and any symptoms seen with exposures.

Write symptoms and exposures weekly (or daily). It often doesn’t take long to see patterns. Testing is important if allergy shots are being considered.

Need help tracking allergy symptoms? There’s an app for that! Here’s one review I found of allergy apps. I don’t have any personal experience of any, so please put your favorite in the comments below to help others!

Wrong medicine or wrong dose.

Some people have more severe allergies and need more than one treatment. I personally use eye drops, nasal spray, and an oral antihistamine in addition to nasal washes and daily (sometimes twice daily) showers when my allergies flare.

Switching types of medication or adding another type of medicine might help. If you need help deciding which medicines are best for your child, schedule an office visit with your PCP for an exam and discussion of symptoms.

Some kids outgrow a dose and simply need a higher dose of medicine as they grow. Talk to your pharmacist or physician to decide if a higher dose is indicated.

Is Nothing working?

Consider allergy shots (immunotherapy) to desensitize against allergens if symptoms persist despite your best efforts as above.

Schedule an appointment with your pediatrician to discuss if this is an option for your allergy sufferer.

Learn to diagnose allergies, what to do when you have them and what you risk if you don't treat them.
Learn to diagnose allergies, what to do when you have them and what you risk if you don’t treat them.



Cough Medicines: Which One’s Best?

I get a lot of requests for an over the counter cough suppressant suggestion or a prescription cough medicine for kids so they can sleep. Despite my attempts at educating the family about why I don’t recommend any cough medicines, many parents are upset leaving without a medicine.

I have collected numerous articles that show why I treat cough the way I do. Links are included throughout this blog. Click away to learn more!

First, a little background

Most cough medicines were studied in adults and the dosing for kids was calculated from the adult dosage.

Kids are not small adults. Their bodies handle illness and metabolize drugs differently.

But few studies have been done to show if medicines work at all, and if they do, what the best dose is for kids of various ages and sizes.

In 2008 the FDA stated that toddlers and babies should not use cold and cough medicines.

Drug makers voluntarily changed the labeling of over the counter (OTC) cough and cold products, recommending them only for children aged 4 and older. The American Academy of Pediatrics says there is no reason that parents should use them in children under age 6 because of the risks without benefit.

Despite this, studies show that 60% of parents of children under 2 years have given a cough and cold medicine. Why? In my opinion, they are desperate to help their child and don’t think it is enough risk to not at least try.

Of course I would never recommend giving a child a spoonful of pills.

I know it’s frustrating when your child is up all night coughing. It’s frustrating when my kids and I are up all night coughing.

do you know what we do in my house?

  • Humidify the air of the bedroom (during the dry months)
  • Extra water to drink all day
  • Honey before bedtime in an herbal tea (No honey before 1 year of age!)
  • Encourage cough during the day to help clear the airways
  • Nasal rinse with saline (I love this, but my family is not so keen on it)
  • Sleep with water next to the bed to sip on all night long
  • Back rubs, hugs, kisses, & reminders that it will get better
  • Nap during the day as needed to catch up on lost sleep
  • Watch for signs of wheezing or distress

That’s about it for the cough.

If something hurts, we use a pain reliever like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. We use those only if something hurts, not just because and not for fever without discomfort.

Why don’t I give my family cough medicines?

Because they don’t work.

The OTC options:

Cochrane Review in 2007 was done to look at over the counter cough medicine effectiveness in both children and adults. These reviews look at many studies and analyze the data. Unfortunately there are very few studies, and many were of poor quality because they relied on patient report. In studies that included children, they found:

  • Antitussives were no more effective than placebo for kids. (one study) In adults codeine was no more effective than placebo. Two studies showed a benefit to dextromethorphan, but another study did not, so mixed results.
  • Expectorants had NO studies done in children. In adults guaifenesin compared to placebo did not show a statistically different response. 
  • Mucolytics more effective than placebo from day 4-10 in kids. (one study) In adults cough frequency was decreased on days 4 and 8 of the cough. (Note: I am not sure what OTC mucolytic was studied. I am only aware of pulmozyme and mucomyst, both used by prescription in children with cystic fibrosis.)
  • Antihistamine-decongestant combinations offered no benefit over placebo. (2 studies) One of two studies showed benefit in adults. The other did not.
  • Antihistamine shows no benefit over placebo. (one study) In adults antihistamines did not help either.

Another Cochrane Review in 2012 once again failed to show any real benefits of cough medicines, especially given the risks of side effects.

What about some specific studies on OTC medicines?

I cannot report them all here, but here’s a few:

study comparing dextromethorphan (the DM in many cough medicines), diphenhydramine (AKA Benadryl), and placebo in 2004 showed no difference in effectiveness of controlling cough for sleep. That means the placebo worked just as well as the medicines. Insomnia was more common in those who got dextromethorphan.

Does guaifenesin help? It is thought to thin mucus to help clear the airways. It does not stop the cough. Studies vary in effectiveness and are typically done in adults, but it may be helpful in children over 4 years of age. Do not use combination cough medicines though, for all the reasons above.

In 2007 honey was shown to be a more effective treatment than dextromethorphan or no treatment. Another study in 2012 showed benefit with 2 tsp of honey 30 minutes before bedtime. A side effect of honey? Cavities… Be sure to brush teeth after the honey!

What side effects and other problems are there from over the counter cough medicines?

As stated above, the dosages for children were extrapolated from studies in adults. Children metabolize differently, so the appropriate dosage is not known for children. Taking too much cold medicine can produce dangerous side effects, including shallow breathing and death.

Many cough medicines have more than one active ingredient. This can increase the risk of overdosing. It also contributes to excess medicines given for problems that are not present. For instance if there is a pain reliever plus cough suppressant, your child gets both medicines even if he only has pain or a cough. Always choose medicines with one active ingredient.

Accidentally giving a child a too much medicine can be easy to do. Parents might use two different brands of medicine at the same time, not realizing they contain the same ingredients. Or they can measure incorrectly with a spoon or due to a darkened room. Or one parent forgets to say when the medicine was given and the other parent gives another dose too soon.

And then there’s non-accidental overdose. There is significant abuse potential: One in 20 teens has used over the counter cough medicines to get high. Another great reason to keep them out of the house!

Side effects of cough medicines include:
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Double or blurred vision
  • Slurred speech
  • Shallow breathing
  • Impaired physical coordination
  • Rapid heart beat
  • Drowsiness
  • Numbness of fingers and toes
  • Disorientation
  • Death, especially in children under 2 years of age and those with too high of a dose

What about prescription cough suppressants?

In 1993 a study comparing dextromethorphan or codeine to placebo showed that neither was better than the placebo. Codeine belongs to a class of medications called opiate analgesics and to a class of medications called antitussives. When codeine is used to reduce coughing, it works by decreasing the activity in the part of the brain that causes coughing. It can make breathing too shallow in children. Codeine has several serious side effects which could be life threatening in children. Combination products with codeine and promethazine (AKA phenergan with codeine) should never be used in children.

The FDA has recommended against the use of cough medicines with codeine or hydrocodone for children for years, but just this month strengthened its position. New labels will now state that they aren’t for use in children under 18 years of age. The label will also warn about misuse adults and list the serious side effects and risks of these opioids.

In my opinion, why use it in older children and adults since it hasn’t been shown to work and we know there are risks?

What about antibiotics for the cough?

I’ve enjoyed following Dr. Christina Johns on Twitter for a lot of great advice like this!

Antibiotics may be used to treat bacterial causes of cough (such as some pneumonia or sinusitis) but antibiotics have no effect on viruses, which cause most coughs.

If your child has a cold, antibiotics won’t help.

Antibiotics won’t make the cough go away faster unless there is bacterial pneumonia.

They won’t prevent the cough from getting worse.

They carry risks.

In summary: over the counter and prescription cough suppressants and antibiotics shouldn’t be used for most coughs.

New Allergy Guidelines for People Over 12 Years Old

If you or your kids suffer from allergies, I’m sure you want to know how to best manage them. In addition to limiting exposure, medications can be a big benefit. Treatment of allergies can be directed by new guidelines. These guidelines cover the initial medical treatment of seasonal allergies in people 12 years and older.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology and the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI and ACAAI) have published new guidelines in the Annals of Internal Medicine for the initial medical treatment of seasonal allergies in people 12 years and older.

The guidelines for treatment of allergies essentially state:
  • Use steroid nasal sprays first without an oral or nasal antihistamine. Many intranasal steroids are available over the counter without a prescription. A great list is included on the AAAAI website. (Be careful to not to confuse them with the nasal antihistamines, which are in the same chart but identified in the column titled “Class”.)
  • In those over 15 years, the nasal steroid is preferred over a leukotriene receptor antagonist (ie Singulair or montelukast). For those with asthma, the leukotriene receptor antagonist might offer an additional benefit for asthma, but it is not the preferred treatment in either allergies or asthma. (I think the age change is simply due to the ages studied but it was not specified.)
  • In moderate to severe allergic conditions, a combination of nasal steroid and nasal antihistamine can be considered.

These recommendations are based on a review of many studies to show what treatments worked and what didn’t.

They also took into consideration the fact that oral antihistamines can cause sedation and the nasal antihistamines do not.

In general the nasal steroids worked better than other treatments. They did note that for people who do not tolerate nasal sprays, alternates would be oral antihistamines or leukotriene receptor agonists.

UPDATE 3.27.18

I have a new blog on the general identification and treatment of allergies. Check out Spring is Here!