DEAR MAYO CLINIC: My 8-year-old recently was diagnosed with a pet allergy. But we have a cat that our daughter picked out when it was a kitten, and she's very attached to it. She's heartbroken that her allergy may mean she has to say goodbye to her furry friend. Can we keep the cat without endangering our child's health?
ANSWER: Yes, your daughter can keep her beloved pet. There are a number of steps you can take to ease the symptoms of her pet allergy and make it comfortable for the two of them to continue enjoying their friendship.
A pet allergy is an allergic reaction to proteins found in an animal's skin cells, saliva or urine. When they trigger an allergy, these substances are called "allergens." Any animal with fur can be the source of these allergens, but pet allergies most commonly are associated with cats and dogs.
Pet allergies often are triggered by exposure to pet saliva or the dead flakes of skin, called "dander," a pet sheds. Dander is a particular problem because it is very small and can remain airborne for long periods of time with the slightest bit of air circulation. Dander collects easily in upholstered furniture, and it sticks to clothing.
For people with pet allergies, exposure to these allergens can lead to various symptoms. The most common include sneezing; a runny nose; itchy, red or watery eyes; nasal congestion; and postnasal drip.
To reduce the effects of a pet allergy, the first step is to try nonprescription remedies. Several over-the-counter medications can help relieve allergy symptoms. For example, antihistamines ease itching, sneezing and runny nose by reducing the production of an immune system chemical, called "histamine," that is active in an allergic reaction.
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When symptoms are more severe, or if they continue despite regular use of over-the-counter allergy medication, then prescription medication may be necessary. Corticosteroids delivered as a nasal spray often can reduce inflammation and control symptoms. The medication montelukast (Singular) reduces production of another immune system chemical, which also can help.
Allergy shots may be appropriate for children who have persistent, severe allergy symptoms, despite using the maximum recommended amount of medication. Allergy shots are a form of immunotherapy that involves receiving allergens in small incremental doses. At first, the shots are given weekly, and the amount of allergens in them gradually is increased with each shot. Ultimately, the goal is to receive only one shot monthly. To be most effective, most people get allergy shots regularly for several years. The shots stop or reduce allergy symptoms by desensitizing the body's immune system to the allergens.
In addition to medication, you can make some changes within your home to reduce your daughter's pet allergy symptoms. For example, use high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filters to reduce airborne cat allergens. Also, consider making your daughter's bedroom a pet-free zone, so she can sleep at night with decreased cat allergens that trigger her allergy symptoms.
A combination of allergy medication and environmental changes often can help control pet allergies, making it unnecessary to remove a family pet from the home. In almost all cases, the physical and emotional benefits pets can offer children far outweigh the problems allergies might cause. -- Anupama Ravi, M.D., Pediatric Allergy and Immunology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.