Is It a Cold or Allergies?


Diagnosis: Respiratory Allergies

It started with a runny nose and a couple of itchy patches that the pediatrician diagnosed as eczema. But by the time he was 10 months old, our son, Parker, was suffering from a seemingly endless run of colds, coughs, and ear infections. Testing confirmed the doctor’s suspicions: Parker was a baby with respiratory allergies.

Respiratory allergies are allergic reactions to airborne allergens such as dust or mold. Although a baby’s very first allergic symptoms tend to show up as eczema or colic, respiratory symptoms may appear starting at around 6 months.

“Initially it’s in the form of asthmatic or chest type symptoms,” says Dr. Sherwin Gillman, clinical professor of pediatrics and allergy at the University of California, Irvine. “Then, later on, they develop more upper respiratory nasal symptoms, like what we call rhinitis or hay fever.” According to Dr. Gillman, as the respiratory symptoms start, children with allergies also seem to be more prone to recurring respiratory infections.

Just the Sniffles?

How can you tell the difference between an allergy and a cold? If you think your baby may be suffering from respiratory allergies, look at the time course of her symptoms, says Dr. Alan Greene, a primary care pediatrician and author of From First Kicks to First Steps: Nurturing Your Baby’s Development from Pregnancy Through the First Year of Life.

Dr. Greene says colds “tend to last for seven to 10 days, and at some point along the way the mucous turns cloudy or a different color. If a child has a runny nose that lasts longer than about 14 days without getting better, then you need to start thinking this isn’t a cold.” This is especially true if the discharge is thin and watery and doesn’t change color or consistency, he adds.

A child’s eyes also can reveal symptoms of airborne allergies. Allergic eyes tend to be itchy, watery, and irritated. “About 60 percent of people with allergies will have dark circles under their eyes,” says Dr. Greene. While these “allergic shiners” aren’t present in all allergy sufferers (and can be present in people who don’t have allergies), they can be another clue that allergies are lurking.

A family history of allergies of any kind raises the odds that your baby could have respiratory allergies. “If one of the parents has a clear-cut history of allergies, then about half of their kids will, and if both parents do, about two-thirds of their kids will,” says Dr. Greene.

Becky Bergman’s son, Matthew, began showing allergy symptoms at 12 weeks of age. Now 16 months old, Matthew has been diagnosed with asthma and several allergies, including an allergy to dust. Bergman, from Antioch, California, says allergy problems run in her husband’s family. “His father and one of his brothers had similar—but not as severe—problems as Matthew,” she says. Their allergies became less severe with age, and Bergman hopes that Matthew’s will, too.