a young boy experiencing hay fever

Hay fever in children: How do I know if my baby or child has hay fever?

There’s nothing fun about itchy eyes and a blocked nose. Especially for children. Here we help you to spot the signs of hay fever in children, so you can find the right way to tackle the seasonal symptoms.

As soon as the sun comes out, it’s a child’s instinct to get outdoors. To roll down grassy hills and climb trees. But have you noticed after a day bounding around the garden, your little one is a bit sniffly or is itching his or her eyes more? Hay fever in children is very common in the UK, with as many as 40% of children in the UK suffering with symptoms during the warmer months1.

In this post, we talk about how to identify hay fever in kids and a few things you can do to minimise symptoms.

How can I explain hay fever to my child?

“Mummy, why does the grass make my nose feel tickly?” “Daddy, why did you say the daisies are making my eyes itchy?” Children love to challenge their parents with questions. But what do you say when your little one wants to delve into why they are sneezing so much when they’re playing outside?

Hay fever, more formally known as allergic rhinitis, is caused by an allergic reaction to pollen. When the pollen produced by plants comes into contact with the mouth, nose, eyes and throat of someone with the allergy, hay fever symptoms develop. But this answer is unlikely to satisfy an inquisitive eight-year-old negotiating why he doesn’t need to wear the sunglasses you’re forcing on him.

So, before we talk about symptoms, let’s take a moment to understand what causes hay fever in toddlers and children, so you can impress them with your answer.

Let’s get back to basics

Pollen is an almost invisible powder produced by trees, flowers, grasses, and weeds during spring and summer. It’s harmless, but when babies, toddlers or children with hay fever breathe in pollen, their bodies recognise it as an allergen. Think of it as an unwelcome invader.

Pollen gets trapped in the hairs and mucus in the nasal cavity. This switches the immune system into self-defence mode. As a result, cells in the nasal passage go into high alert, producing antibodies to fight off the pollen invasion. To help things along, white blood cells flood into the area and produce a chemical called histamine, which gets to work hustling the pollen out of the body. Together all of these things cause irritation and swelling in the areas the pollen gets to – so the nose, eyes and throat.

Your child experiences this as congestion in the nose, sneezing, watery eyes and a scratchy throat. They’re annoyances to us, but It’s actually the body’s well-meaning effort to force pollen out of the body and prevent any more from getting in.

Can toddlers and babies get hay fever?

Hay fever in an allergy that frequently first develops in childhood or during adolescence. Although it’s uncommon in children under five, research suggests that hay fever can begin as early as 18 months of age2. Yes, managing hay fever in toddlers is a reality for some families.

But equally, you could spend your childhood rolling in meadows without sneezing once, but then develop hay fever later in adult life. An allergy is something that develops with repeated exposure to a substance (for hay fever, this is pollen.) As your body’s defence mechanisms recognise pollen, they can become sensitised to it. In response, you cultivate a reaction which is then ‘remembered’ by the body. This response can take years to develop.

The great news is many children also grow out of the allergy, or at least see a reduction in the severity of symptoms as they get older.

Did my child get hay fever from me?

In a study of nearly 900,000 participants, scientists discovered 41 genes that increase the risk of developing hay fever3. This suggests that although environmental factors undoubtedly have a role in the growing prevalence of hay fever in children, genes may also increase your risk of developing allergy symptoms4.

Based on this strong genetic link, your child’s likelihood to develop symptoms of hay fever can be affected by family history. If you suffer due to a seasonal flurry of pollen, then your child’s sniffly nose is also more likely to be the sign of an allergy. But it’s not a certain, as susceptibility to an allergy won’t always be passed on.

Signs of hay fever in kids

Recognising hay fever in children isn’t straightforward. First, seasonal allergic rhinitis (to give it its formal name) shares many symptoms with the common cold. This makes it easy for parents to brush off their child’s runny nose as a summer cold. Secondly, some signs of the allergy are invisible to the parental eye, making hay fever in babies and toddler harder to spot. With small children, there’s the additional complication of recognising these less obvious symptoms, when a toddler or baby can’t easily explain what they are feeling.

First, let’s look at the symptoms and then the tell-tale signs that may suggest that your child may have developed an allergy to pollen.

Hay fever symptoms

  • Red, itchy or watery eyes
  • Sneezing
  • A blocked or runny nose
  • Itchy throat, mouth, nose and ears
  • Coughing
  • Loss of smell
  • Earache
  • Tiredness

5 behaviours that can help you to spot hay fever in a baby or toddler

  1. You’ll notice your child rubbing their eyes because they’re itchy.
  2. Frequent sneezing, especially when outside or around greenery.
  3. A constantly running nose. With hay fever the discharge is usually clear.
  4. Symptoms that come and go in line with how much time is spend outdoors and the weather.
  5. Hay fever can disrupt a child’s sleep patterns.

But is it hay fever or a cold?

Looking at the hay fever symptoms above, they’re strikingly similar to the common cold. It’s easy to understand why it can be hard to distinguish between the two during the summer months. Particularly with young children who aren’t able to communicate their symptoms to you clearly or with ease. However, the main difference is a cold is a viral infection, not an allergic reaction and this allows us to make a few important distinctions.

Firstly, a cold usually goes away in a few days. If hay fever is untreated, it can last for weeks or months. Itchiness is also more symptomatic of an allergy, so if a child is rubbing their eyes, it’s more likely to be hay fever than a cold. If your child has a runny nose, take a look at the tissue. Yellow or green discharge is characteristic of a cold, whilst with hay fever, it’s usually clear. And finally, whereas cold symptoms come on gradually, hay fever appears quickly in response to a daily rise in the pollen count.

How can I stop my child getting hay fever?

As a parent, seeing your son or daughter in discomfort provokes one overwhelming response – is there anything that I can do for my child to help stop hay fever symptoms? For adults with allergy symptoms, there’s a wide range of eye drops, nasal sprays and antihistamine tablets to help control symptoms. But medication options are very limited for younger children and should be administered only under the advice of a doctor or pharmacist.

However, there are natural remedies for hay fever that can help manage the severity of some symptoms and are child-friendly options.

In addition, there are a number of other things you can do to help limit contact with pollen.

Things that can help prevent hay fever in children

The longer your child is exposed to pollen, the more histamine is released by their body, causing more inflammation. Therefore, limiting contact with pollen can help aid with reducing the severity and duration of symptoms. Here are a few hay-fever friendly habits that you may like to adopt to protect your family.

Know when the pollen count is high

Check the pollen forecast for your local areas, so you can prepare for the onset of symptoms. The Met Office pollen forecast is a useful guide5.

Get to know the pollen cycle

Hay fever is common in spring and summer, when the pollen count is at its highest. It’s possible for children to experience hay fever symptoms between late March and September. Tree pollen is typically high in March and April. Grass pollen reaches peak concentration in May to July, and weed pollen comes later in June to August. By understanding which pollen type triggers your child’s allergy, you can understand better when symptoms are most likely to hit.

Wash pollen away

Change and wash your child’s clothes when they come back indoors after outside play. This will reduce the amount of pollen you bring back into your home. A shower or bath after school can also help to remove pollen.

Keep their bedroom door and windows shut during the day

This again will limit your child’s exposure to pollen when inside and help to minimise discomfort overnight.

Wear sunglasses and a wide brimmed hat

Creating a physical barrier to reduce contact with pollen is also a wise idea. Wrap-around sunglasses are a great option for keeping airborne pollens away from sensitive eyes.

Apply a barrier balm around the nose

Dotting a natural balm around the nose can trap pollen before it gets into the nasal cavity.

Summary: Hay fever in children

If you’ve suffered with hay fever yourself, you’ll be familiar with the main symptoms. Sneezing, watery eyes and itchiness are all irritating signs of an allergy to pollen in children too, especially if they come and go with changes in the weather and fluctuations in the pollen count.

If you or your child is struggling to cope with hay fever symptoms, avoiding pollen can help, or it can be worth speaking to your GP about an allergy treatment.

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Last updated: 4 June 2020

AllergiesChildren's AllergiesChildren's HealthConditionsHay Fever