School Daze

Over-the-counter drugs for allergies make kids sleepy in school

FRIDAY, Oct. 19, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Kids with allergies are caught between a rock and a hard place: If they suffer with the sneezing and runny nose, they may not be concentrating well on school work. But if they take over-the-counter medicine, they may be so sleepy that their school work still suffers, says a new report.

"We do see a lot of kids who are sleepy and groggy because their parents are giving them over-the-counter medications for allergies," says Judy Robinson, executive director of the National Association of School Nurses in Castle Rock, Colo. "Lots of times parents will even send the bottle of allergy medication with their kids and ask the school nurse or the school staff to give them another dose."

According to Robinson, more than 6 million children have nasal allergies, which leads to more than 600,000 absences from school each year.

Breathing in an allergen, like pollen or animal dander, triggers an immune response in cells that line nasal passages, causing them to release histamines. Histamines react to foreign substances in the body by making small blood vessels in the skin, eyes and nose widen, causing redness and swelling. When the body overreacts, the result is the familiar -- and annoying -- sneezing, watery eyes and runny nose.

To check if allergies and allergy medications are affecting school kids, the National Association of School Nurses surveyed more than 300 school nurses nationwide.

"School nurses basically say they've seen a rise in the number of students with allergy symptoms," Robinson says.

Two thirds of the nurses surveyed said a child's alertness and ability to concentrate are impacted by taking over-the-counter medications, with drowsiness as a side effect, Robinson says.

But doing nothing about the allergy is no solution, she adds

Almost 90 percent of the nurses agreed that untreated nasal allergy symptoms interfere with school performance; 62 percent said such students participate less in the classroom, she says.

"These kids don't feel well," Robinson explains. "They're sleepy, they're not paying attention, they're headachy and they have runny eyes. Generally, they're pretty miserable."

"But while over-the-counter medications help these symptoms, they can be problematic in themselves," Robinson adds. "We're concerned that parents may not be well-informed about the use of medication,"

"The solution is to identify the allergy the kids have by a visit to an allergist or a pediatrician, and to then determine what medication might best address that allergy," Robinson suggests. "A lot of the new antihistamines do not cause drowsiness. In some cases, over-the-counter medications work great, and the kid can take the medication at night."

Dr. Richard L. Wasserman, former chairman of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, says the best treatment for allergies is a prescription steroid nasal spray.

"They are safe and effective," Wasserman says. "There is a new generation of non-sedating, over-the-counter antihistamines, but they are not as effective as the nasal spray."

"But drugstore allergy medication is not going to have a huge impact on a child," Wasserman adds.

"There was a study done many years ago that looked at Benadryl, which showed that the impact of antihistamine on learning was modest -- about 3 to 5 percent. Antihistamines are not going to make somebody into a dummy," Wasserman says.

What To Do

For more on allergies and medication, check out the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology or KidsHealth.

Looking for the daily pollen count? Try the Breathing Zone.

Claritan also has an excellent allergy site.

SOURCES: Interviews with Judy Robinson, R.N., Ph.D., executive director, National Association of School Nurses, Castle Rock, Colo.; Richard L. Wasserman, M.D., Ph.D., clinical associate professor of pediatrics, University of Texas, Southwestern Medical School, Dallas; National Association of School Nurses press release
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