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Childhood Allergies Acting Up? Meet the allergy detective

Runny noses, sneezes and wheezing due to allergies are a way of life for many children in Houston. It's common knowledge that this city's muggy climate and air pollution are especially hard on anyone with hay fever or asthma.

"Many children with allergies that fail to improve with medications will require some type of testing to precisely determine specific allergens," says Dr. Sandberg, who cares for patients at Kelsey-Seybold's Clear Lake Clinic, Fort Bend Medical and Diagnostic Center and Main Campus locations. "After a thorough physical exam, we use skin testing, which is rapid and accurate, to identify the allergens. In some situations, blood testing is preferable."

Houston provides an active climate for allergists like Dr. Sandberg.

"Other cities, such as Charleston, S.C., may have higher allergy burdens, but Houston consistently rates near the top of locations with high risk of allergy," Dr. Sandberg notes. "High humidity contributes to dust mite concentrations, while warm weather produces long growing seasons for grass."

The major outdoor causes of allergic diseases in Houston are pollens from grass, oak and ragweed. The high humidity in Houston also increases the risk of mold allergens.

But a child's ancestors also play a role in their susceptibility to allergies. While 15 percent of the population develops allergies, that risk doubles if one parent has allergies, and nearly doubles again to 50 to 60 percent if both do.

What Exactly is an Allergy?

An allergy is an altered immune response, or sensitivity, to a usually harmless substance such as dust mites and grass pollens. In some children, the exposure to allergens triggers the immune system to manufacture various proteins called antibodies. These may then trigger an allergic reaction on the surface of the airway. The resulting swelling of the airway lining and secretion of mucous may lead to congestion, runny nose and watery eyes.

Allergic reactions that occur in the nose, eyes and bronchial tubes are usually caused by airborne allergens, such as pollens, dust mites, mold spores and animal dander. But there are cases where food allergens cause rashes or episodes of wheezing.

Hay fever symptoms are not limited to a runny and stuffy nose, itchy eyes and sneezing. "Commonly, you'll also see dark circles under the eye, known as allergic shiners," Dr. Sandberg says.

Understanding the Triggers

Understanding what triggers an allergic reaction can help you avoid the dreaded symptoms that come with it.

"The first line of defense is allergen avoidance," Dr. Sandberg emphasizes. "Whenever possible and practical, simply avoid the allergen. For allergy to animal dander, avoid making contact with cats and dogs."

When that's not possible, the second line of defense is allergy medication. An allergy specialist can concentrate on providing symptomatic relief by helping to reduce the stuffy, runny nose and helping you sleep more comfortably. The third line of defense is allergy shots or immunotherapy for specific allergens.

"It's a process of desensitization," Dr. Sandberg adds.

Immunotherapy consists of administering increasing concentrations of allergy extract over a three- to five-year period.

"It is important to treat nasal symptoms promptly and aggressively to prevent worsening of lung problems," Dr. Sandberg summarizes. "We treat hay fever and allergies aggressively when identified in a young person in an attempt to reduce asthma in teen years."

When to See a Specialist

If you think your child suffers from allergies, talk to your pediatrician. Seeing an allergy and immunology specialist may be needed if:

  • Your child is missing school because of repeated bouts of runny nose, congestion or wheezing.
  • Your child is having difficulty sleeping comfortably through the night.
  • Your child has been prescribed medications, but the symptoms persist.
  • There is a family history of allergies or asthma.
  • You want to identify the allergic factors that are causing a problem.
  • You want a second opinion or recommendations on how to control the symptoms.