You realise pretty quickly, when you become a parent, that your life is going to involve quite a lot of snot.
It's standard for children to ooze from their noses a bit, and as their immune systems are still developing, they're somewhat prone to catching colds.
But if your child is sneezing a great deal, their nose is constantly streaming, their eyes are itchy and sore, and their symptoms last more than a few days, it could be allergic rhinitis that's causing them bother.
What is allergic rhinitis?
Allergic rhinitis refers to the inflammation of the mucus membranes inside the nose, and it is caused by allergens, including dust mites, mould spores and animals.
Seasonal allergic rhinitis (known more commonly as hayfever) is caused by either grass or tree pollen. Hayfever comes on during the seasons when plants and trees are pollinating (see below), while non-seasonal allergic rhinitis can be a year-round problem.
Itchy, watery eyes
A 'scratchy' throat
Runny, blocked or itchy nose
Additional symptoms might include:
Wheezing, or difficulty breathing
Blocked up ears
Restless sleep and irritability
Tree pollen – which is at its highest levels in early to mid spring.
Grass pollen – which is at its highest levels late spring to early summer.
Dust mites – these are microscopic critters which feed off dead flakes of human skin, and reside in mattresses, pillows, carpets and soft furnishings. It's actually a chemical in their poo which causes the allergy.
Animals – usually dogs and cats, but occasionally also other creatures, including rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, horses and cows. Although people tend to assume the animals' fur is the problem, it's actually flakes of their dead skin, their saliva and their urine.
Why does my child have an allergy?
No one is entirely sure why some people suffer from allergic rhinitis while others don't, but allergies often run in families – so if anyone in your family has an allergy, then your children are at an increased risk of developing one too.
People who have 'inherited' an allergy are described as atopic and they tend to have over-sensitive immune systems. Normally, the body will produce IgE antibodies to fight off viruses and infections, but in allergy sufferers, the body also judges allergens to be harmful. So, when it detects them, it produces more IgE antibodies.
In turn, this causes the body to produce certain chemicals, including histamine, which is what causes the inside of the nose to become inflamed and the sinuses to produce much more mucus.
How can I be sure it's an allergy?
If you suspect your child has an allergy, then you should make a trip to see your GP. They'll ask you about your family history, and whether you have noticed any particular triggers for the symptoms. They might also examine the inside of your child's nose, to look for inflammation, and polyps, which can occur as a result.
If your doctor suspects an allergy, they are likely to prescribe an antihistamine, which is very effective at reducing the amount of histamine the body produces, and therefore greatly reducing symptoms. For children, liquid antihistamine is available.
Often just taking antihistamine will confirm that there is an allergy present. If the symptoms disappear, or are very much reduced, then it's almost certain an allergy to blame. Your doctor might also prescribe a nasal spray containing a steroid, which can help to reduce the swelling inside the nose.
Sometimes, the offending allergen it is quite evident, just from when symptoms appear – but to be certain about what your child is and isn't allergic to, an allergy test can be carried out.
The test will be done either at a hospital or an allergy clinic and there are two ways the test can be done:
Skin prick test – Small droplets containing likely allergens are placed on your child's arm, then the skin underneath the droplet is pricked with a small needle, to make a little scratch. Any allergen which is causing your child problems will produce a small itchy spot within a few minutes – evidence that the immune system has reacted.
Blood test – Alternatively, a small vial of blood will be taken and tested in a laboratory for offending allergens.
It's important, with both of these tests, that your child has not had any antihistamine in the four days previously, as it could affect the results.
Once your child has been diagnosed, there is plenty you can do to keep them feeling well.