If you’re already complaining about runny noses and sneezing this spring, you’re not alone. It’s shaping up to be a difficult season for those who suffer from seasonal allergies.
Why? Could be a number of reasons, the consequence of a milder winter, a family history and there’s the hygiene theory suggesting our obsession with cleanliness has left our immune system looking for things such as pollen to fight.
An estimated 50 million Americans suffer from allergies, which we often refer to as “hay fever.” Symptoms include itchy eyes, nose and throat; sneezing; stuffy or runny nose. Allergic conjunctivitis occurs when the eyes react to allergens with symptoms of reddening, itching and swelling.
In spring, trees release pollen spores that get carried by the wind. That pollen tends to stick to your eyes and the inside of your nose, triggering symptoms in people who are allergic.
Allergy symptoms are the result of our immune system overreacting. It sees the pollen as a foreign invader and attacks it, which leads to the release of chemicals called histamines into the blood. Essentially your body is responding to a false alarm. The histamine travels through the blood and latches onto histamine receptors on other cells, causing them to swell. This inflammation causes many familiar allergy symptoms.
Antihistamine drugs work by blocking the histamine from affecting these cells. It is not yet completely understood why some substances trigger allergies and others do not, nor why some people have allergic reactions while others do not. A family history of allergies is likely the single most important factor that puts you at risk of developing an allergic disease. Allergies can, and often do, get worse as a person ages. Rarely do they get better.
Pollen seasons vary in different parts of the country. Early spring is typically when trees pollinate, with birch, cedar, cottonwood and pine trees cause the biggest allergic triggers. In warmer climates, pollen issues can be almost year-round. Grass pollen allergies typically arise in late spring, and weeds cause hay fever from the summer through the fall. Ragweed is often one of the biggest offenders in our area. When the symptoms are year-round, they may also be caused by exposure to indoor allergens such as dust mites, indoor molds or pets.
Asthma sufferers can be especially affected by allergies, which can be dangerous and even life-threatening. Asthma often is triggered by allergies, although most people with allergies do not develop asthma.
There are a number of other things you can do to control your allergy symptoms:
• Limit your time outdoors on days with high pollen counts.
• Use air conditioners.
• Keep your house and car windows closed to keep pollen out.
• Avoid using fans, as they can stir up pollen.
• If you must do yard work, wear a mask.
• Wash your hair before bedtime.
Over-the-counter medications often help relieve allergy symptoms, but if you experience difficulty breathing, or the symptoms become more severe, you should seek medical attention. Your physician can prescribe stronger medications if needed, although many need to be taken early in the season in an effort to prevent the symptoms before they begin.
An allergist can help determine if you have seasonal allergies, and the types of pollen to which you are allergic. This is achieved through allergy testing, which typically involves skin testing, or a blood test called a radioallergosorbent test. Allergy testing can be helpful in predicting the times of the year that you are likely to experience allergy symptoms, and is a must if you are considering immunotherapy (allergy shots).
— Dr. Kenneth B. Colaric, MD, is the Medical Director of the Emergency Department at St. Mary’s Medical Center and can be reached at 816-655-5472.