A sniffly nose and sneezing can be easy to blame on seasonal allergies. But if your child has a runny nose every morning, it might not be the great outdoors that's causing the problem. Indoor allergens are incredibly common - one study found over 45% of homes had high levels of common allergens. If your child suffers from year-round allergies, then it could be her bedroom that’s triggering the reaction - and night long allergic reactions can have a significant impact on sleep.
Allergens aren’t actually harmful, but your body reacts as if they were. An allergic reaction occurs when your child is exposed to something that her body identifies as dangerous, and it reacts as if it were an invasive foreign particle, trying to get it out of the body as quickly as possible. One way the body gets rid of dangerous particles is by releasing histamines. Histamines are a local immune response that makes capillaries in mucus more permeable, increasing the flow of fluid. This causes the symptoms of watery eyes, runny nose and sneezing.
The allergen itself isn’t impacting your child’s sleep, but the symptoms of the reaction do. It’s hard to sleep well with a runny nose, and if the stuffy nose affects breathing, then the problem is even worse. Further complicating a good night’s rest is the fact that it could be your child’s bed itself that’s triggering the whole reaction.
What triggers indoor allergens?
Technically, an allergic reaction is a mutation: your body is reacting to something that isn’t really harmful. Exactly what causes an individual to develop allergies to a particular trigger isn’t fully understood, and people can develop allergies to just about anything. But the vast majority of indoor allergic reactions are caused by just a handful of triggers: dust mites, mold, pets and cockroaches.
If your child’s allergy symptoms are worst in the morning and improve during the day, then the bedroom is the first place you should look for culprits, and the most likely place for allergens to be hiding is the bed itself. Dust mites are tiny arachnids that eat the flakes of your skin that naturally fall off. They live in soft fabric surfaces like curtains, pillows, mattresses and carpets. They don’t bite or hurt humans directly, and your child’s reaction is probably not to the mites themselves but to their droppings. They’re invisible, but they’re everywhere, and if your child has a box spring fabric mattress that’s not brand new, it’s guaranteed to have some dust mites living inside.
If your child’s allergies are worse at certain times of year, you might assume they’re seasonal, but it could be indoor mold, not outdoor pollen, that’s causing your child’s autumn sniffles. Mold allergies can be consistent all year round, but they can also be worse when the weather is dark and damp. An allergic reaction to mold is triggered when you breathe in the spores, so your child will have symptoms when there are enough mold spores in the air to trigger her allergies. Depending on how sensitive her allergy is, that might only happen at certain times of year.
A pet allergy is generally easy to spot - your child’s symptoms will be worst when she’s playing with your pet. But if your pet sheds frequently and you’re not able to keep up with vacuuming up the fur, then it might be harder to identify. Pet allergies are usually triggered by dander, which are particles of skin that flake off your pet. Inhaling the tiny particles of skin is what causes allergies, but because the particles are so small and lightweight, they’re everywhere your pet goes. If your child is sensitive, she’ll have a reaction not just from playing with your pet, but from being anywhere your pet hangs out - on the couch, on the floor or in her bedroom.
The final common cause of indoor allergic reactions is also one of the grossest, but if your child’s allergies are caused by cockroaches, don’t freak out. Like all pests, cockroaches can be hard to get rid of, and an occasional cockroach - or even an infestation - isn’t necessarily a reflection on your housekeeping abilities. However, if your child has an allergic reaction, it’s usually to the protein found in the cockroaches droppings and shed particles - and just like the pest, those can be found all over your house. Luckily, though, bedrooms aren’t the place where cockroaches are most likely to hang out - they’re usually found in the kitchen and bathroom, near water and food.
How can you treat bedtime allergens?
Prevention is always better than cure, and there are few situations where that’s more true than with allergic reactions. The best way to manage indoor allergens is by minimizing them in your house and reducing your child’s exposure. This is the best solution for several reasons. First, because your child’s symptoms are based on her sensitivity, and if you can get the allergen below a certain threshold, her symptoms will go away - even if the allergen is still present in a small amount. Second, low-level exposure is a way to treat allergies, so if you can get the allergen low enough that her symptoms are managed, then it’s possible that over time, her allergy will go away entirely.
Focus on the bedroom first, since that’s where the symptoms cause the most problems. Even if you aren’t sure what’s causing your child’s allergic reaction, your best bet for controlling it is always to start with her bed. Get allergen-proof covers for her mattress and pillows, and wash all the bedding, along with any other fabrics in her room like curtains, rugs, and pillows, in hot water (over 130 degrees). This will kill both mold and dust mites, which is a big step toward a better night’s sleep. Use hypoallergenic, fragrance free detergent, since scents and additives in your detergent can trigger reactions too.
Next, clean everything. Allergens aren’t a sign of poor housekeeping, but they can be reduced with a good cleaning. Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter, which will prevent microorganisms like dust mites and mold spores from getting back into the air after you vacuum them. Dust all furniture with a damp cloth, so you’re wiping up the dust instead of just stirring it up. Scrub bathrooms for mold, but use vinegar or a non-allergenic cleaner, not a scented spray which can trigger allergies. Along with cleaning, clear out clutter, especially piles of boxes or clothes, which are great hiding spots for allergens and insects.
If your child is still suffering from symptoms, consider more extensive changes to your house. Can you exchange fabric furniture for leather, microfiber, or wood? These are less likely to harbor dust mites or mold. Can you replace carpets with wood or tile flooring, at least in your child’s bedroom? Can you ban pets from the bedroom, and keep them confined to a different part of the house?
Finally, if no measures are helping, consider adding an air filter to your home. Whole house systems are expensive, and they aren’t a replacement for other solutions. But when used along with the methods to reduce allergens, they can improve both allergy symptoms and asthma. You can also get a filter just for your child’s room, which may be all she needs to reduce her symptoms and get quality sleep.