If your child has come home this past month with the sniffles, it may not be a cold. At school, they may be exposed to allergens and irritants not found at home. Symptoms of allergen exposure can include runny nose, congestion, sneezing, watery eyes, itchy nose, itchy eyes, cough, and even asthma attacks.

Here are some possible allergy and asthma triggers to keep in mind:

  • Cockroaches and mice. Droppings and protein dust from these critters can be found in schools and classrooms. These allergens tend to be seen at higher levels in urban schools.
  • Classroom pets. Children can be allergic to hamsters, guinea pigs, mice, rats, chicks and rabbits, some of the more common classroom pets. Any furry animal may trigger symptoms. In addition, kids who live in households with dogs, cats, and other animals carry pet hair and dander into school on their clothing.
  • Exposure can be outdoors and indoors throughout the school year. Some amount of indoor mold is normal, but there can be increased amounts when there is high indoor humidity, standing water, or water damage.
  • Recess, physical education and outdoor activities. Vigorous indoor or outdoor play can trigger symptoms such as cough, wheezing, shortness of breath, or chest tightness in children with asthma. This time of year, kids with seasonal allergies may be exposed to ragweed and other weed pollens that can trigger allergies and asthma. In the outdoor environment, pollution can trigger asthma symptoms as well, especially if the school is located near busy roads.
  • Chalk dust. Chalk residue is more of an irritant than an allergy, but can cause nose, eye, and asthma symptoms just the same. It helps these days that chalkboards are less common in classrooms and white boards are being used, instead.

If you notice that your child has developed allergy symptoms since starting school, an allergist can  test to help identify triggers and offer advice on treatment. If your child has a school-based trigger, allergy medication during the school day or treatment with allergy shots, also called allergen immunotherapy, can help. Making changes in the environment to avoid the allergen can help, too. This may include decreasing exposure to pets, keeping windows closed, and making sure the environment is not overly humid.

For children with asthma, allergic triggers and exercise may cause symptoms to flare. Children with asthma should have rescue medication such as an inhaler and an asthma action plan available to them at school. For some children, their doctor may recommend use of rescue medication before gym class or recess as a preventive measure. Younger kids may be less verbal about how they're feeling, so be sure to review your child's asthma action plan with school staff.

For children with food allergies, being back to school can cause anxiety. If you haven't by now, review your child's food allergy action plan with school staff. Children with food allergies who have been prescribed epinephrine autoinjectors should have two unexpired devices available to them at all times. These may be stored at the nurse's office or sometimes, older children may carry their medications based on the school's policy. Discuss snack time and classroom celebrations with your child and the teacher ahead of time. You may need to send snacks to school for your child to eat during a celebration. Most schools have policies designed to help protect children with allergies and will partner with you to ensure that your child has a healthy and safe school year.

Hillary Gordon, MD, is a pediatric allergist who practices at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, at Nemours sites in Concordville, Pa., and on the Thomas Jefferson University campus in Philadelphia.