My babysitter called in sick last week. She never calls in sick, and that makes two babysitters in one week’s time, both with the solid work ethics of…well, better than mine, anyway. When she shows up again this Monday, she sounds like Kathleen Turner. Not a bad thing, if you’re Kathleen, but a little deep and hoarse for a ninety-pound pixie. Her replacement sitter meantime spent two hours the week before getting my little teething love to take a nap – only to wake him with a coughing fit. “Don’t worry,” she sputters, “it’s just allergies.”
If I had one strike to level against Austin as an otherwise Utopian city, full of lush greenbelts, outdoor restaurants, natural springs and outdoor concerts, it is that the outdoors here that is so seductively available is also a veritable minefield of allergens, nearly all year long. This Spring, however, seems to be bringing unique challenges. My kids aren’t hit (mercifully!), but if I had one complaint among clients that trumps all others — and creates all sorts of health complications and related conditions, it’s seasonal allergies. The clear runny nose, mild headaches, itchy eyes that may mark the beginning of a histamine response to anything from ragweed and grasses, to high mold counts, can quickly make their way into sinus infections, coughs, sore throats, eustachian tube congestion,earaches and generally lowered immune systems that leave your little one (and their caregivers) open to other invaders. This issue gets so complicated, in fact, that I’ve saved writing about it for years, hitting on it indirectly through remedies for cough and runny nose, sore throat, ear infections, but never addressing seasonal allergies directly.
I’ve waited long enough. Here’s what I recommend for seasonal allergies & your children: both for before allergy season begins for your kids, what to do if you didn’t see allergy season coming, and, at the worst, if your family never found it’s way out of one long allergy season (Austinites, read on…).
BEFORE THE ONSLAUGHT (in hopes that it never arrives):
I should say before going further, that stemming the tide of allergy symptoms can absolutely be a reasonable goal for most families. The trick that makes it easier, is to bolster your kids’ immunity before the season begins. That way you aren’t clearing out and drying up mucous, or calming frazzled nervous systems, you are getting them healthy — much as we all prefer the carrot to the stick, the carrot here is having children who feel stable, healthy and energized, a power place from which to enjoy a pollen-filled outside world. At least one month before your child’s peak allergy season, begin incorporating these remedies and immune tonics:
- Astragalus root: A staple of Chinese herbalism, astragalus (also referred to as Huang Qi), is an amazing immune tonic, with beneficial effects in boosting the wei qi (loosely described in english as our outer protective energy that is especially correlated to lung and immune health). In short, this herb is a long-used immune miracle. To prepare, take 4 long slices (in bulk form it comes in slices that closely resemble tongue depressors) and place in soup or boiling water for 20 minutes. If you’ve placed it in water, you can give it to your child as a tea, in 1/4 – 1/2 cup quantities, 2-3 times a day. It lends itself to soups as well — with a mild earthy flavor, it blends well with cooked carrots and shitake mushrooms – also great immune enhancers, or adds nicely to our Spring Healing Soup.
- Local Honey: in children over 15 months of age, local honey is an oft-touted remedy. Does it live up to its reputation? No scientific studies have ever conclusively investigated honey to my knowledge, but anecdotal evidence supports an inherent logic to why local honey might prove very effective: when bees pollinate flowers, some of the pollen remains on their legs — ultimately making its way into the honey we eat. The result for us may be much like homeopathy, immune response therapy, or even the theory behind vaccinations: when a very small amount or ‘dummy’ version of pollen or other substance (such as a virus in the case of vaccines) is introduced to the body, the body produces antibodies to respond to it. When a larger quantity is introduced, the body is ready. Like the logic? Honey is your ready-made homeopathic dose of pollen. Either offer it to your child by the teaspoon, or mix it into tea — a slice of lemon and/or a few small slices of ginger, steeped for 3-5 minutes with honey to taste is a tasty and popular way to give your child their daily dose of honey — plus, the lemon’s antimicrobial properties and ginger’s anti-inflammatory action make this an allergy super-remedy. Be on the lookout for a ginger-lemonade recipe for recipe weekend…
- Essential fatty acids: In addition to being ‘brain food’ for children, essential fatty acids have been shown in studies to reduce the body’s inflammatory response. So good for growing minds anyway, its a great idea to incorporate efas into your child’s diet prior to allergy season, then continue with it throughout (and beyond!). Great sources include flaxseed oil (don’t cook this, but add it liberally after cooking to oatmeal, yogurt, rice, greens, grains — it has a pleasant nutty taste to it), walnuts, fish oil or algae-derived DHA supplements. If purchasing fish oil (krill oil is a great alternative for non-vegetarians), splurge on a high-quality, purity-tested supplement — we want it to be free of all contaminants in larger fish such as heavy metals.
- Immune-building acupressure: I talk about spinal rolling quite a lot in both the Mommy’s ER iBook and the DVD series. Why? It is an amazing technique that most children look forward to – and, when done regularly, offers great benefit to the immune system. By applying a gentle pinch-and-roll technique to the skin and muscles of the back on either side of the spine, you are actually stimulating every organ system in your child’s body, and touching on every point I’d use in one of my favorite treatments as an acupuncturist when dealing with any allergic response. Here, a picture is worth a thousand words on spinal rolling. I recommend it at least once a day every day for even one minute, three is even better, or as long as your child enjoys it. It is a great after bath ritual with efficacy that should not be under-valued.
- Remove & reduce environmental & dietary stressors: Pre-allergy season is the time to reduce the number of stressors on your child’s immune system — at least those over which we have some control. Notice that your child breathes a little heavier after ice-cream and dairy products, or gets excited-then-sluggish after sugary snacks? Now would be a wonderful time to put these foods or food groups on seasonal hiatus. Alone, they may not be worth imposing restrictions, but together with pollen, they may be the straw on the proverbial camel’s back when it comes to your child’s immunity.If ragweed is a trigger allergen for your child, studies show that raw bananas, cucumbers, melon and zucchini share certain properties — prolifins, a similar proteins so you may try avoiding these as well (although some science suggests that these proteins get broken down by saliva.) Smoking, pet dander, mild food sensitivities are all potential immune stressors that you can look at removing. If friends, family or loved ones are smokers, encourage them to smoke outside, far out of range of your child (this should always be the case, but allergy season provides an important impetus if this change needs to be made.) Pets in the house that you suspect may cause a little bit of an allergic response in your child? Don’t ban the pet, but consider banning it from your child’s room. Give carpets and linens in their room a good washing and allow their bedroom to be a dander-free haven. You can stress to your child that these changes are temporary. When Spring or your other high allergy time of year is over (check the allergy reports for your area – it can be anything from just a couple of weeks to a couple of months that your child’s particular airborne triggers are high), decisions around food and pet can be revisited.
WHEN ALLERGY SEASON (and its symptoms) ARRIVES:
Sometimes, I just don’t catch on — either to the calendar telling me it’s ragweed time, or to the fact that my cranky son may be under some kind of environmental stress. Fatigue, clear runny nose, slight digestive disruptance. watery-itchy eyes, or allergy ‘shiners’ — dark sunken-looking circles under the eyes may be the first clue. Never fear, it’s still not too late to stop a full-blown allergy attack by incorporating the above remedies, and adding at least a couple of the ones below:
- Vitamin C: in addition to being an incredible antioxidant, which eliminates free radicals and their burden on your child’s immune system, vitamin C has anti-inflammatory properties that make it a go-to supplement for children and grown-ups suffering from allergies alike. 250mg taken two to four times a day is a reasonable dose for children over the age of four (for chldren under the age of 4, start with doses of 100 mg at a time or less). If your child develops diarrhea, back off to a lower dosage. When allergens begin to decrease, taper your child’s vitamin C supplementation back to one dose per day, but don’t stop giving them vitamin C abruptly (vitamin C is water soluble and as such, extremely safe, but quick withdrawal can temporarily mimic the symptoms of scurvy – yikes!). My preference is always mineral ascorbate form with bioflavenoids.
- Bioflavenoids: Bioflavenoids are natural plant compounds that provide pigment and act as antioxidants. They also have proven anti-inflammatory effects that are specifically anti-allergenic. The most potent anti-allergenic among the bioflavenoids is quercetin, which acts as a natural antihistamine. The most effective way for a child to utilize bioflavenoids is with vitamin C, which is why vitamin C supplements often include them. If you choose to supplement them separately, the dosage appropriate for your child would depend on their weight — the typical 150 lb adult dosage of quercetin for allergy relief is between 400-600mg, so if your child weighs 50 lbs, the dose would be around 200mg for children 4 and over (for under 4 years old, I tend to be conservative with supplements, so consult on quercetin with a trusted health professional). You can also encourage your child to eat flavenoid-rich foods — common in purple-colored foods, such as grapes, blueberries, and blackberries, and in apples when you leave the skin on. (PS mama, wine has flavenoids too, if you need a post-bedtime dose.)
- Calcium and magnesium. I don’t like a slew of supplements for children in general, but during allergy time, the right nutrients take on added importance. Calcium and magnesium help to calm allergic responses in the skin and respiratory system — especially, but not exclusively, when your child is deficient in magnesium (many kids and adults are.) A good supplement provides you with a 2:1 ratio of calcium to magnesium for optimum utilization. A good dose for a child over 4 would be 250mg calcium and 125mg magnesium, twice per day during acute attack, down to one dose per day for a couple weeks after the attack has ended.
- Freeze-dried nettle: A heartily nutritious herb, nettle can be used to bolster nutrition, immunity, and act as an antihistamine simultaneously. It is particularly good for drying out sinuses and also for stimulating the lymphatic system. If your child suffers from chronic allergies, sinus trouble, or swollen lymph nodes during allergy season, this would be my desert-island pick. Dosage is as directed, for children over 4 years old only. Consider having your child take this with food, as it can occasional cause stomach upset. In rare cases where the stomach upset still persists, stop giving the nettle for the time being.
- Elder: Also called elderberry and black elder, elder is an herb whose flower and berries are rich in flavenoids — the natural plant compounds we discussed earlier, with potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. While most commonly used to reduce fever, elder’s natural tannins and volatile oils have natural astringents which dry up mucus in the respiratory passages. This makes elder an effective choice for children’s allergies – particularly if your child is generating a large amount of mucus, and a generally good thing to have on hand in your medicine cabinet. It can be administered as a tea, tincture or syrup — for children’s taste and ease, I use it in syrup form, using as directed, 1-2 times per day.
- Turmeric: Turmeric is a bright yellow-orange culinary spice that is great for health as well — alleviating muscle aches & pains, and even sometimes used as a natural cancer treatment (if I haven’t recommended it before, you’re almost certain to see it again in an upcoming blog on growing pains). It is an amazing medicinal spice due to its curcumin content — a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. As such, it helps heal inflamed respiratory tissues, along with resolving cases of excessive mucus. Because, to my knowledge, no studies exist on turmeric at medicinal dosages for children, I recommend it for children over 50-60 lbs, and stick to a conservative culinary amount, such as the amount you’d use in a good serving of curry — about 250mg (where, by the way, it’s the reason for an Indian curry’s characteristic yellow color).
- Saline rinse: This is as simple — and not quite as disagreeable as it sounds. Available over the counter, get one without preservatives — or make your own by dissolving 1/4 tsp of non-iodized salt and 1/8 tsp of baking soda in 1/2 cup of room temp or lukewarm water, then spray into one nostril at a time with a nasal spray bottle or a bulb syringe. If your child is old enough, have them blow their nose after you administer. If not, you can suck out the excess mucus with a bulb syringe as well. If making your own saline rinse, make a fresh batch every time.
- Face massage: There’s nothing like mama’s healing touch when your child is feeling ill — but neck and face massage serves another important function — moving your little one’s lymph system in the area of their body most affected by allergies. Using your clean fingerpads, with or without a little light olive or almond oil, massage at their temples, over their eyebrows, and gently from the bridge of their nose, down under their eyes at the top of their cheeks, following the cheekbones from the nose out in repeated strokes.
IF THINGS INTENSIFY:
Sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, we can no longer tell if our children have allergies or a full-blown infection or viral illness. Often it’s a combination effect — what started as one has led to the other (eg what starts as mild seasonal allergies lowers immunity and makes your child susceptible to the virus run amok at school…) Here are some ways to assess the severity of your child’s condition:
- Watch the color of your child’s mucus as one indicator of how things are progressing. If their mucous remains clear and thin, you are generally dealing with a relatively minor ailment or allergy. If it turns, green, copious, thick, you may now be looking at a sinus infection, or, if the mucous moves into the eustachian tubes, a possible ear infection.
- If your child starts coughing, this is another sign that whatever has been bothering their system has now moved deeper into the body. In Chinese medicine, the most superficial level of ailment is runny nose and other mild ‘head’ and ‘back of neck’ symptoms (back of neck soreness, chills, runny nose are signs of an initial challenge to your child’s health). If it starts to affect, mood, digestion, or lungs, or your child starts running a fever, it’s gone deeper and become more entrenched. This is not to scare you, but just to give you a sense of when to keep a greater watchful eye, and consider consulting with your healthcare provider. Also, check out our remedies section on cough & runny nose for further home remedy suggestions.
- Your child’s mood is a great indicator of how they are feeling. If they seem hyperactive, difficult to calm, or alternatively cranky or depressed. These can also be byproducts of allergies. Check out our Remedies Section on Runny Nose and Cough, or the iBook chapter by symptom — sore throat, runny nose, wet or dry cough, and handle it according to the prevailing symptoms.
The goal here, of all of these remedies, is to gently but firmly rebalance little one’s body, and make the outdoors feel friendly again, just in time for Summer fun. And if our babysitters read this blog and follow its advice too, so be it. 🙂