An estimated 36 million Americans are keeping their tissue boxes close at hand with the peak of the allergy season upon us. The budding trees, grass and weeds mark another battle against sneezing, itchy eyes, runny nose and congestion for allergy sufferers.
Allergies are physiological reactions caused when the immune system reacts to a specific foreign substance (allergen), such as pollen or mold spores. Many trees, grasses and weeds contain small and light pollen that are easily carried by the wind, causing allergy symptoms to flare up.
The human body is designed to ward off detrimental “enemies,” such as viruses or bacteria, but in some instances it defends itself against relatively harmless substances such as pollen and dust. The immune system protects itself by releasing or producing certain chemicals called histamines, cytokines and leukotrienes, which tend to support what the system is trying to accomplish overall (i.e., neutralizing the foreign substancer) but in the process creating unpleasant (or in extreme cases, life-threatening) reactions in the allergic person.
Reactions could be:
• Nasal stuffiness, sneezing, nasal itching, nasal discharge, itching in the ears and roof of mouth (rhinitis)
• Red, itchy, watery eyes (allergic conjunctivitis)
• Red, itchy, dry skin (atopic dermatitis)
• Hives or itchy welts (urticaria)
• Itchy rash (contact dermatitis)
• Shortness of breath, coughing and wheezing (asthma)
One of the best ways to help prevent allergy attacks is to use a medication prescribed by your primary care physician or an allergist when the allergy season begins. With continued use of medication and avoidance of potential triggers, allergic symptoms can be minimized. For those with more persistent symptoms, allergy vaccine therapy may be the solution.
In addition to timing medications, the following tips to help allergy sufferers find some relief this season:
1. Do a thorough cleaning. Throughout the winter, windows, book shelves and air conditioning vents collect dust and mold that can provoke allergy symptoms.
2. Minimize outdoor activity when pollen counts are high. Visit the National Allergy Bureau at www.aaaai.org/nab for pollen levels in your area.
3. Take medications at least 30 minutes prior to outdoor activity. Consult your primary care physician (or your allergist/immunologist if your primary doctor has referred you to one) to ensure medications are helping you, and always report when reactions to medications occur.
4. Shut windows in your house on days pollen counts are high. Avoid using windows or fans that may draw pollen inside.
5. Wash bedding weekly in hot water.
6. Dry laundry indoors. Sheets hanging on an outside line are an easy target for blowing pollen.
7. Shower and wash your hair before bed. Pollen can collect on your hair and skin.
8. Keep pets off of the furniture and out of the bedroom. Pollen can cling to the dog or cat after being outside.
9. Keep car windows closed during peak season. Use air conditioning and point vents away from face.
10. When mowing the lawn or gardening wear a filter mask.
If you do not feel relief when using an antihistamine and avoiding common allergens, or if you seem more dramatically affected than just a runny nose, itchy eyes or sneezing, please contact your physician for further options.
Dr. Andrew Murphy, MD, FAAAAI, is the allergy chief at Chester County Hospital.
By Dr. Andrew Murphy
June 30, 2014