Spring has arrived, and with it, our allergies. Suddenly we’re looking at the day’s pollen count and stocking up on allergy medications. Good Housekeeping magazine has a great article about allergies we would like to share with you.
Allergies are getting more common and flare-ups worse. Here’s why—plus, new ways to weather the change.
One day, Kathleen Shaputis’ nose started running—and it wouldn’t stop. At first she thought she had a cold. Then, when the sniffling and dripping got more annoying, she went to the doctor. To her surprise, Shaputis found out to was allergic mold and to the trees in her Olympia, WA, area. “I was 55!” says Shaputis, now 29. “I’d had some mild allergy symptoms before, but nothing like that.”
Join the sneezers: The number of people with seasonal allergies has increased dramatically over the past 30 to 40 years—by some estimates, it’s more than doubled—and, like Shaputis, many are being hit for the first time in midlife. “I see a big bubble of new patients between 35 and 55,” says Clifford W. Basset, M.D., medical director of Allergy & Asthma Care of New York.
If you find yourself among les misérables, grab a tissue, then learn here what else can help wipe away your symptoms.
A LOOOOONG SEASON
Plugged noses, itchy eyes, skin rashes, difficulty breathing—allergy symptoms are caused by the immune system’s mistaking a normally harmless substance (like dust) for a threatening one, then releasing a cascade of histamine and other chemicals in self-defense. While you’re born with the propensity to develop the problem—by one estimate, about half the population tests positive to at least one allergen—the severity of your body’s reaction (or chance it will react at all) can be influenced by other factors. Chief among them is climbing pollen levels: Global warming, which has led to longer growing seasons, can put plants into pollen overdrive. In recent years, the spring allergy season has started two to three weeks earlier, and fall’s has ended up to four weeks later. Plus, many cities have added to the problem by favoring male plants over female ones; though male plants (unlike some of their human counter-parts) are tidier—no sidewalk-staining berries and messy seedpods—they do produce lots of pollen.
And pollen overproduction can worsen other allergies. “You can have reactions to indoor things like pet dander and mold, yet still be relatively asymptomatic for most of the year. But when pollen season comes along, it becomes more than your system can accommodate,” explains Robert Reinhardt, M.D., a U.S. medical director in immunodiagnostics at a lab equipment company. The result: You become more reactive to everything.
Beyond pollen, some experts blame our obsession with cleanliness for the rice in allergies. Early contact with microbes seems to prime the immune system to tolerate allergies, but in our increasingly sanitary world, children often miss this “opportunity.” This “hygiene hypothesis” is still just a theory, but last year, Australian researchers found that children exposed to pets prenatally and in the first month of life had fewer allergies. Evidence has been strongest for dogs, but a recent study shows that cats may be protective as well.
FLICKING A SWITCH
New allergies can also be set off by changes later in life. Shortly after giving birth to her first child at age 36, Beth Dornan of Rockford, MI, developed a string of sinus infections that were triggered, she later discovered, by seasonal allergies she’d never experienced before. The only thing in her life that had changed (she lived in the same house, had the same dog) was the birth of her daughter. “If you have an underlying genetic predisposition for an allergy, something can throw a switch on it,” says James Sublett, M.D., of the University of Louisville School of Medicine in Kentucky. “It may be a viral infection, a new environment—or, yes, hormonal changes due to pregnancy or menopause.” The good news: The same physiological changes can sometimes turn off the allergy switch, too.
Treating your sniffling self with over-the-counter antihistamines may be enough. But if it’s not, tests can zero in on what’s causing your symptoms and help your doctor prescribe a more effective medication. Tests can also clue you in on what to avoid—”which may allow you to stop a medication altogether or at least take less of it,” says Dr. Reinhardt.
What you learn from the tests may surprise you. Nikki Wheeler of Denver thought her doctor was being ridiculous when he said she was allergic to the cat she’d had for 10 years. Yet, when she laundered her bedding and kicked her cat out of the bedroom for just one night, she felt better right away.
Even in this high-tech age, skin-prick tests, in which doctors lightly puncture your skin and then expose it to tiny amounts of allergens such as ragweed and dander, are still considered the most accurate. If those aren’t feasible (certain medications for instance, can interfere with the findings), a doctor may use blood tests, which may be less sensitive. Stay away from the allergy test kits sold in drugstores and online, which you do at home and send to a lab: Their misleading results may have you complicating your life or sacrificing favorite foods unnecessarily, warns the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. A doctor will consider your medical history, symptoms, and environment before testing for specific allergens.
HOME REMEDIES FOR ALLERGIES
“Avoidance” is an allergist’s favorite word. If you are allergic to dust mites, try covering pillows and mattresses with special cases to help keep them away. Dust regularly (while wearing a mask over your mouth and nose), and vacuum with a machine that has a HEPA filter to help ward off dust allergies. You can even reduce your exposure to pollen, especially when the counts are particularly high. Some steps to take on high-pollen days:
1. Exercise in the A.M., when pollen counts may be the lowest. Or, work out indoors during allergy season.
2. Keep outdoor clothes out of your bedroom.
3. Wear oversize sunglasses and put on a hat with a wide brim.
4 Cleanse your eyelids with a gentle baby shampoo to remove allergens. Before bed, shower and was your hair. “Otherwise you’ll be sleeping in a pollen microenvironment,” says Dr. Reinhardt.
5. Use air-conditioning in both your car and your home to keep out pollen as well as slow down the growth of dust mites in warmer months. Change the filters often.
6. Avoid fruits and vegetables that make your mouth tingle or your throat itch. This odd phenomenon, known as oral allergy syndrome, affects as many as a third of seasonal-allergy sufferers. “If you have tree, weed, or grass pollen allergies, you can experience symptoms in the mouth and throat due to a cross-reaction between the proteins in produce and the pollens,” explains Dr. Bassett. Ragweed allergies can make you sensitive to cucumber, zucchini, and bananas, among other fruits, while grass allergies can trigger reactions to melons, oranges, and tomatoes. Apples, pears, kiwis, carrots, stone fruit, celery, almonds, and hazelnuts can cause problem for those who are allergic to tree pollen.
A MED FOR ALL SEASONS
There are over-the-counter pills like Allegra and Zyrtec. It can take trial and error to find one that helps. But if none seem to work, tell your doctor; he or she can prescribe medications, among them prescription antihistamines (for deflecting the immune response), decongestants (for unstuffing your nose), and nasal steroid sprays (for decreasing inflammation).
Because most seasonal allergies are just that—seasonal—you can also use meds to head off symptoms. It may be too late for this year, but if you suffer from spring allergies, you can begin using nasal sprays, eye drops, and antihistamines a week or two ahead of when “your” allergen arrives, or at the first sign of symptoms, and you’ll feel better at the height of the season.
If you’re treating allergy symptoms with antihistamines and not getting any relief, you might require a combination of meds. Or you may not have an allergy at all. It’s normal to develop symptoms like a drippy nose and congested sinuses when confronted with strong scents, cold air, smoke, spicy foods, or other ordinary irritants. “But some people have an exaggerated reaction called nonallergic (or vasmotor) rhinitis,” says Dr. Sublett. Because it doesn’t involve a true allergic response, an antihistamine like Benadryl or Claritin probably won’t stop the drip. Over-the-counter nasal sprays that contain oxymetazoline or phenylephrine may be more effective options, but use them no longer than three days so as to avoid rebound congestion—otherwise, you nose will be even more stuffed up. If you still need relief, a doctor can prescribe nasal sprays that contain steroids or a combo of ingredients.
Many suffers can benefit from immunotherapy—better known as allergy shots—in which you’re given gradually increasing doses of your allergens in order to make your system more tolerant. The shots, which help people who are allergic to dust mites, cats, dogs, molds, pollens, and stinging insects—everything but food triggers—may be given in clusters, a new approach. Then they’re tapered down to once-monthly injections, and after a few years, you’re completely done.
Trying New Natural Cures for Allergies
Nature may be presenting greater challenges, and new troublemakers (phones!? ticks?!) may be gaining recognition, but we also have more and more tools to fight back.
Acupuncture and Allergies
After Dana Morton’s childhood allergies came back with a vengeance when she was 50, she turned to acupuncture to combat her reaction to the sage, cedar, and oak trees near her Sonora, CA, home.
What she discovered was similar to what German researchers found in a new study: Acupuncture treatments reduce both symptoms and reliance on antihistamines—but not for long. In the study, improvement vanished within two months. To Morton’s relief, allergy shots are now doing the trick.
Capsaicin, Horseradish, and Wintergreen Nasal Spray
Compelled by a doctor’s recommendation that she have surgery to relieve sinus pressure, Christina Latella of Schenectady, NY, tried a natural nasal spray containing capsaicin, horseradish, and wintergreen. She’s never been better.
While studies looking at capsaicin have been mixed, Latella’s experience suggests—and Dr. Sublett agrees—that it’s worth a try.
That’s the case for allergy treatments generally.
Sourced, in part, by Daryn Eller, Good Housekeeping, May 2013