Beat Springtime Allergies
It's the season to be sneezin', but a Bergen doctor explains that to some degree, suffering is optional.
You may be excited over the sight of flowering buds and blooming trees at this time of year, but there’s more than spring enthusiasm in the air. Pollen, mold spores and other airborne allergens are abundant, and people who suffer from seasonal allergic rhinitis are rightly wary of their effects.
Seasonal allergies (alias hay fever) affect approximately 60 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms such as sneezing, stuffy nose and itchy and watery eyes are the immune system’s response when pollen grains from trees, grass and other plants enter the body. Some sufferers may also experience itchy skin or worsened asthma.
With warmer temperatures and fewer frosts in recent years, allergy season has been starting earlier and lasting longer. Tree pollen typically begins when winter ends, but Patrick Perin, M.D., chief of Allergy & Immunology at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck and a physician with Allergy Partners of New Jersey, has noticed a shift and is tracking the changing schedule.
“We see a sprinkling of pollen in late February,” he says. “Tree pollen usually rises and peaks over the last two weeks in April through the first two weeks in May.” And symptoms may not stop there, as grass pollen counts increase in May, then ragweed hits its peak from August through October. The tendency to have allergies is genetic, and symptoms typically show up during childhood. But for some people, symptoms can make their debut later in life.
The tendency to have allergies is genetic, and symptoms typically show up during childhood. But for some people, symptoms can make their debut later in life.
“Allergies do have a strong genetic component; however, one needs to have exposure to become sensitized,” Dr. Perin explains. “There are also many nonspecific factors that contribute to atopy [predisposition to an immune response], including repeated viral infections and one’s environment. We don’t ‘develop’ allergies, but one can slowly become symptomatic after exposure year after year. Each subsequent year may have greater symptomatology after exposure.”
It’s important to individualize treatment for each patient. An experienced specialist can get a good feel quickly for what combination of medications may work best, taking into account the patient’s specific symptoms and medical history.
For those with occasional symptoms, solutions can be as simple as changing clothes after spending time outdoors and washing your hands and face. “Wash your hair before bed so your pillow doesn’t get full of pollen,” Dr. Perin advises. And take care of Fido too. “Dogs can carry pollen on their coats, so brush them before they roam the home.”
Adults who experience moderate symptoms for the first time can usually treat themselves with an over-the-counter medication such as Claritin or Zyrtec. These antihistamines will reduce overall allergic response and provide symptomatic relief. For those who need more relief from stuffiness and congestion, doctors may suggest an intranasal corticosteroid spray or an intranasal antihistamine spray.
“The nasal steroids take up to one week to work and will only be effective if used daily throughout the allergy season,” our doctor notes. To combat irritated eyes, a doctor can prescribe drops with vasoconstrictors that eliminate redness by shrinking blood vessels. Prescription eye drops with either antihistamines or mast-cell stabilizers can be used for longer periods and are better for persistently itchy eyes.
Dr. Perin recommends a course of action that provides “the best relief” and warns that untreated allergies can trigger asthma. “Asthma must be treated appropriately and not with OTC meds as, if left untreated, a patient may require hospitalization,” he says. There are a variety of prescription inhalers, both quick-acting “rescue” inhalers and long-acting anti-inflammatory products that can reduce the frequency of attacks. While these medications can provide excellent symptom control, their use must be individualized.
When medications fail to provide relief, an allergist may suggest immunotherapy. “Allergy shots are the only potential long-term cure, as they can reprogram the immune system that triggers the allergy symptoms,” Dr. Perin says. Allergy shot treatment is essentially “exposure therapy.” A shot is given once a week over a period of several months until a maintenance dose is reached, and then it’s administered monthly, he says. Patients typically feel some relief after two months. Immunotherapy has been reported to have a roughly 85 percent success rate, but it does involve a significant time commitment on the patient’s part.
6 WAYS TO KEEP POLLEN AT BAY
Want to sneeze less and have fewer runny-nose episodes this season? Try limiting your exposure to pollen and other allergens by making these smart choices:
• Keep your windows closed at night and, if possible, use air conditioning, which cleans, cools and dries the air.
• Try to stay indoors when the pollen or mold counts are high. If your symptoms are severe, wear a pollen mask if long periods of exposure are unavoidable. When you return indoors, take a shower, shampoo your hair and change clothes.
• Avoid mowing lawns or raking leaves, as this work can stir up pollen and molds. (You can volunteer for an indoor chore instead.)
• Wash bedding weekly in hot water. Do not hang sheets or clothes outside to dry.
• When traveling by car, keep your windows closed.
• Take any medications as prescribed.
Source: American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology