For one in seven U.S. children, the symptoms of seasonal allergies start now and can last through the fall. Seasonal allergies (also known as hay fever or allergic rhinitis) occur when something in the air, such as tiny tree particles, grass, weeds, or pollen, comes into contact with nose membranes and triggers inflammatory chemicals called histamines, causing sneezing, congestion, itchy eyes, cough, and runny nose. While not life threatening, allergies can interrupt your youngster’s sleep, weaken concentration, and keep him or her from participating fully in play and school.

Over-the-counter allergy medications can bring relief, but like any conventional drugs, they are not without drawbacks. “I don’t think decongestants and antihistamines are appropriate for kids, period,” says Randall Neustaedter, OMD, a doctor of Oriental medicine and homeopathic pediatrician. “They tend to make kids tired, and they don’t really address the problem. They’re like putting a Band-Aid on the symptoms. It’s more important to build up immune system function, which these medications do not do.” Long-term use of antihistamines has also been linked to depression, anxiety, and impaired thinking.

You can help reduce and even eliminate your child’s allergy symptoms gently and naturally by reducing contact with allergic substances and boosting the immune system—or, in Chinese medicine terminology, “strengthening the constitution.” Here’s how.

1. Clean inside air.

Outside, pollen is impossible to avoid, but indoor air is another matter. Get a HEPA air filter, which removes pollen and dust from air, and run it in your child’s bedroom 24 hours a day. The portable models work fine in smaller rooms and cost less than $100. Also, on windy days and while your child is sleeping, keep windows shut. If possible, rip out old carpet and cover air vents with filters, vacuum frequently when your child is not in the room, avoid ceiling fans, and wash all bedding and stuffed animals once a week.

2. Keep the nose clean.

It might take getting used to, but rinsing the sinuses with warm saline (salt water) is an excellent, age-old natural remedy that helps reduce contact with pollen and lessens allergy symptoms. Sinus rinse kits are available in stores and online for about $15. If you are familiar and comfortable with a neti pot, use one to flush pollen from nasal passages.

3. Provide a low-inflammation diet.

If your child has food sensitivities—and many kids do but don’t know it—foods such as dairy and wheat can be mucus forming and inflammation promoting, which can create an imbalance in immune system function, says Neustaedter. Consider limiting these foods before and during allergy season. He also suggests using nutritional supplements to build up the small-intestine lining, which balances immune-system function. One to try is glutamine, an amino acid linked to improved intestinal-lining maintenance. Also, add more antioxidant-rich and anti-inflammatory foods—such as nuts, fish, grapes, oranges, apples, and tomatoes—to family meals. Because they fight free-radical cell damage (which interferes with the immune system), antioxidants can help boost immunity.

4. Try natural medicines.

When allergy symptoms do flare up, Neustaedter recommends Chinese herbal formulas, such as Xanthium, which relieves symptoms gently but immediately by acting like an antihistamine. Homeopathic remedies, made from natural substances, work by stimulating the body’s own healing mechanisms and can be beneficial for allergy sufferers; but, warns Neustaedter, “You need to see a homeopath and get the right medicine for the specific case.” A homeopathic doctor might prescribe a homeopathic constitutional, given in a single dose, to strengthen the immune system and prevent symptoms from recurring. “It’s the most help with the least intervention,” Neustaedter says. Also, recent studies have shown certain common herbs to provide seasonal allergy support. For instance, several compounds found in rosemary—rosmarinic acid, luteolin, and perillyl alcohol—can be very effective in normalizing the inflammation and immune response that accompany allergic reactions, and rosemary itself is very safe, even for children. Be sure to consult an experienced herbalist or holistic doctor before giving herbs to children; some can be toxic if given improperly.

Why some kids get allergies

Allergies are abnormal responses to typically nontoxic substances; so why do some kids’ immune systems misread and overreact when others’ don’t? While a family predisposition is often a factor, recent studies also suggest this oversensitivity might be linked to antibiotic overuse—which might help explain why allergies have been on the rise for the last 40 years. “Antibiotics kill off not only disease-causing bacteria but also health-promoting bacteria,” says Gary B. Huffnagle, PhD, of the University of Michigan. “We’re learning that the immune system receives important signals from these beneficial bacteria that train the immune system to attack invaders quickly and then slow down before causing any damage to the body itself. In the absence of ‘slow-down’ signals, the immune system could itself be the cause of chronic inflammatory diseases like allergies.”

Some scientists are taking a hard look at vaccines, too. In his new book, The Holistic Baby Guide (New Harbinger, 2010), Randall Neustaedter, OMD, cites research that links allergies to vaccines. “Some researchers think that vaccination of children tends to create an imbalance in the immune responses, making children more prone to allergic responses.”

Common plant triggers

The most common hay-fever triggers are plant pollens. Flower pollen is usually carried by bees, so it isn’t windblown and rarely gets into people’s noses. The most prolific culprits are weeds such as ragweed, sagebrush, and thistle. More than 1,000 kinds of grass grow in North America, but only a few—including the Kentucky bluegrass that’s probably in your yard—produce allergic pollen. Trees with the highest pollen counts are oak, ash, elm, hickory, pecan, box elder, and mountain cedar. Regardless of what your child may be allergic to, symptoms are generally the same so many holistic pediatricians don’t recommend allergy skin tests. “Most pollen can’t really be avoided anyway,” says Neustaedter.

Allergy-soothing tea

Warm liquids soothe the throat and nasal passages, so brew a pot of herbal tea for your child. (Sweeten, if necessary, with a natural sweetener such as agave nectar or stevia.) Your natural products store likely carries several teas created specifically for allergy and sinus sufferers. The Art of Health’s Allergy Clearing Tea contains anti-inflammatory herbs licorice and rose hips, as well as detoxifiers including nettle and red clover to help calm inflammation and provide symptom relief.