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By Sarah Mahoney
Most mothers rely on traditional harbingers of spring, like songbirds and daffodils, to tell that the seasons are changing. But Jean Tate has a different way of observing it: "First, my 8-year-old son's eyes start to get watery and itchy," says Tate, who lives in suburban Minneapolis. "Then, there's the sneezing. And if we're not careful to give him the over-the-counter medications the doctor recommends to control his spring allergies, his asthma can flare up."
Allergies -- which lead the parade into school-nurse offices this time of year, according to Sandi Delack, president of the National Association of School Nurses -- are just one of many ailments that pop up in springtime. Between them and accidents, poison ivy and tick bites, and other seasonal ailments, pediatrician and emergency room visits surge as the temperature rises. Here's how to protect your kids:
1. Intensify your tick patrol.
Tiny ticks carry huge health risks, so be sure to check your kids frequently after they've been outside. Most bites don't need medical attention -- just remove the tick with tweezers, getting as close to the skin as possible.
But "if you live in an area that is endemic for Lyme disease and you removed a deer tick," you should call a doctor, says Dr. Matthew Gammons, a physician at the Vermont Orthopaedic Clinic in Rutland and spokesperson for the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). Also, if the area around the bite looks infected, red or swollen; if it's painful; or if your child develops a fever or rash (even if it's not near the bite), get to the doctor. Your doctor may put your child on antibiotics or just ask you to watch for symptoms.
And don't worry about lumps. "Often, parents think there's a retained tick part under the skin," says Gammons, "but the area is just swollen. This is very common and usually related to the glue-like substance some ticks secrete."
2. Police poison ivy.
Spring means that poison ivy, identified by its three leaves and reddish color, is staking its claim. Because kids are so eager to scurry through the woods, they're at high risk.
It may take a couple of exposures to the plant for a rash to develop, but once it does (usually after 12 to 72 hours), you can soothe the itch with cool or lukewarm water, using over-the-counter products and taking baths with oatmeal or baking soda mixtures. If the reaction is severe, head for your doctor or the emergency room. To prevent the problem, show your kids pictures of poison ivy so they can recognize -- and learn to avoid -- the enemy.
3. Find out about fifth disease.
A viral rash illness, fifth disease is very common among kids between ages 5 and 15, although symptoms are often so mild that kids may not realize they're sick. And yet, many parents are taken by surprise when their child wakes up with flaming red cheeks. (It's also known as "slapped cheek disease" because of that telltale facial rash.)
This springtime illness typically starts with a low fever; after about a week, the facial rash appears. At that point, the contagious period is already over. But your child will then likely get a lacy rash all over her body, which can come and go for up to three weeks.
Because it's viral, the only treatment is TLC: fluids, pain relievers and plenty of rest. (Note: While it's not a big deal for children, fifth disease poses a big risk to pregnant women. If you know your child has been exposed, keep her away from any moms-to-be.)
4. Audit allergens.
Pollens and molds fill the air in the spring, causing sneezing, itching, watery eyes, nasal congestion and headaches. "For mild seasonal allergies, over-the-counter treatment is usually adequate," says Gammons. "But if they're causing sleep troubles, worsening asthma or interfering with your child's quality of life, they should be evaluated by a physician."
You can also monitor how much pollen is in your region each day and keep your child indoors more on days when levels are high. Just go to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology's Web site and look for your region under Pollen Counts.
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Sarah MahoneySarah Mahoney is a contributing editor at Parents and Prevention magazines. Her work also appears regularly in Family Circle and Good Housekeeping.