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Irritants vs. Allergens


Did you know that it is possible for a child to have allergy-like symptoms without actually having an allergy?

Irritants are substances that can trigger allergy- and asthma-like reactions when a child is exposed to them. What causes these symptoms and the degree to which they are experienced varies from person to person.

Common irritants include:

  • Smoke of any kind
  • Infections
  • Chemicals or strong odors
  • Changes in temperature or humidity
  • Certain types of food

How to Avoid Exposure to Irritants

Because irritants are different for every child, how you avoid them will depend on what your child's triggers are. Here are some tips for avoiding the most common irritants.


  • Don't smoke inside the car or the house.
  • Use a smoking jacket when smoking outdoors and take it off before coming back inside.
  • Avoid using wood-burning, gas or propane stoves.
  • Avoid campfires.


  • Wash hands frequently and avoid people with colds or the flu.
  • Get a flu shot every fall.

Chemicals/Strong Odors:

  • Avoid using strong cleaners like bleach or ammonia.
  • Avoid using air fresheners, perfumes, hairspray, fabric softener or dryer sheets.


  • Avoid spicy food or other foods that cause sneezing or a runny nose.

When to See a Doctor

It can be difficult to tell the difference between an irritant and an allergen, but an allergist can help with this. Your child should see an allergist if he or she:

  • Has allergy-like symptoms several months each year.
  • Cannot control allergy symptoms with antihistamines or over-the-counter (OTC) medications.
  • Experiences negative sid​e effects, such as drowsiness, when taking antihistamines or OTC medications.
  • Has decreased quality of life on account of allergy-like symptoms.
  • Experiences warning signs of asthma, like coughing, wheezing, chest tightness or shortness of breath.