Allergies Versus the Common Cold

Activities to educate your class on the causes and symptoms of allergies.

By Erin Bailey

Boy sneezing

The days of warmer weather, increasing daylight, and the anticipation of summer vacation are upon us. For children, spring fever is often accompanied by allergies as well. About twenty percent of the American population suffers from some sort of allergy - food, pollen, dander, or otherwise. Teaching students the difference between the causes of colds and allergies can be a fun lesson that also builds compassion for those afflicted with allergies.

Building Vocabulary

To begin, ask your class what they know about allergies. Most children probably know someone who has an allergy or they might have an allergy themselves. Record a list of symptoms on chart paper to use later.

Next, assign learners a vocabulary word to make into a small poster, complete with definition and pictures or illustrations. Some words to consider are allergen, anaphylaxis, antibodies, antigen, antihistamine, dander, epinephrine, histamine, mast cell, pollen, and virus. Hang these around the room so that students can refer to them.

Lay Down the Basics

From that background information, educate your class on what happens in the body to cause an allergic response. Point out that a poison ivy rash, swelling after a bee sting, food allergies, itchy eyes, fevers, and coughs are all reactions to antigens. An antigen is any substance that causes the body to produce a specific antibody. Viruses, bacteria, pollen, dander, insect venom, and certain components in food can all be antigens. Sometimes, however, the body has a hypersensitive reaction to a specific allergen. An allergen is one type of antigen.

After exposure to an allergen, the body tries to contain it by producing an antibody called IgE. IgE then attach itself to a special blood cell called a mast cell. Most of these are found in the airways and GI tract which is why respiratory and digestive reactions are so common. The allergens bind to the IgE cells like iron filings to a magnet. The mast cells release histamine into the bloodstream in an attempt to rid the body of the offending substance. Histamine is responsible for the tears, airway constriction, and mucous production associated with allergies. Antihistamines, like those found in Benadryl, block the production of histamines in an attempt to alleviate these symptoms. A container of FLARP – that slimy stuff in the plastic container – is a great visual for how mucous traps an antigen. Drop a marble into it and watch the slime surround it.

You can make posters of the following steps ahead of time or have the class do it together. Then learners can practice putting them in order.

  1. Exposure to an allergen occurs.
  2. The body produces the antibody IgE.
  3. IgE attaches itself to a special blood cell called a mast cell.
  4. Allergens are attracted to IgE and bind to it.
  5. The body releases histamines.
  6. Histamines produce mucous, tears, and coughing in an attempt to contain or expel the allergen.

Venn Diagrams and Slides

Refer back to the list you made in the introduction to create a Venn diagram to compare colds and allergies. While some symptoms are the same – sneezing, coughing, and fatigue – there are differences. Colds rarely cause itchy, watery eyes and generally don’t last more than two weeks. On the other hand, allergy symptoms can last weeks, if not months. Fever and aches are not symptoms of an allergic reaction, but rather of the immune system fighting off a virus.

In science, young scholars can look at various antigens under a microscope or hand lens. Try factory slides of pollen, dust, bacteria, viruses, or mold. Older students can investigate places in the school where pollen and mold are commonly found. Prepare greased microscope slides from food-grade silicon grease which your kitchen or custodial staff may have on hand. Have learners hypothesize about how and where pollen and mold enter the school’s air supply. They can place slides near vents, windows, and doors. They can also test the pollen produced by various landscape plants by hanging slides near trees and flowering plants.

Pollen-Free, The Way to Be!

As a final activity, consider ways to reduce outdoor allergens, specifically pollen. The class can research plants found around the school or in the community to find out how much pollen they produce. After their research is complete, they can create a class book about low-pollen plants or plant seeds of low-pollen plants.

Food Allergies

If you would like to include lessons about food allergies, look for these on Lesson Planet.

Food Allergies 

Pupils in grades 3-5 learn about the immune system's role in causing food allergies. The lesson asks children to imagine they are part of a support group. They help an imaginary member – Jack’s immune system – write a letter explaining why he has behaved so badly and made Jack so sick. Participants also explore recipes that are allergen free.

Food Allergies

Participants learn about common food allergens, such as nuts, soy, milk, and eggs. They discuss hidden ingredients in foods and possible consequences for those who are allergic to them. To raise awareness of food allergies, children create a button to wear that reminds people of a particular allergy.

Teacher's Guide: Asthma

This resource is listed as appropriate for grades PreK-2. However, depending on the children, I think it is more appropriate for grades 1-4. After children learn the parts of the respiratory system, they make models of it from tube pastas. One represents the airways before an asthma attack, and a second shows what happens after an asthma attack.