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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 side 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.

    Irritants are things that can trigger asthma or allergy like symptoms.  They may not necessarily be an allergy like a pollen or mold or cat or dog but they can be equally bothersome.  Some examples would be things like cigarette smoke, strong perfumes or chemical smells, infections, sometimes just changes in temperature or humidity can be really irritating. 

    Many people who have allergies are also sensitive to irritants.  Many people just are sensitive to the irritants but it is extremely common.  Symptoms people usually would notice would be watery eyes, runny nose, congestion, sometimes drainage down the back of the throat when they're around those specific triggers.  Avoiding them is really important.  The irritants like humidity and temperature changes are tough because that's just part of the environment and we all have to go outside, so those are a little trickier.  Some of the others like the strong chemical smells, you could try to avoid things like bleach or ammonia for cleaning.

    Because these things are hard to avoid, medications can be very important to control your symptoms.  Interestingly allergy medicines work really well for these irritants as well, so a lot of times for patients who have irritant triggers, we still use the same types of medicines as if they have allergies so things like nose sprays or antihistamines can still be really helpful.  ​​