If you are bothered by allergy symptoms, you are not alone. In the Pacific Northwest, even seasonal allergies can occur during much of the year: February-April for trees; May-September for grass; and May-October for weeds. In addition, allergies to dust mites, mold and animal dander usually bother people throughout the year.
1. What are allergies?
Allergies represent an unwarranted response by our immune system to generally harmless foreign substances called allergens. When people have allergies, their immune system releases chemicals, such as histamines, to fight off the allergens. Interestingly, it is the presence of these histamines rather than the allergens that produces most allergy symptoms.
2. Talk to your doctor
Consult a healthcare professional if you are bothered regularly by any of these symptoms: itching, sneezing, a runny nose, post-nasal drip, rashes, shortness of breath, coughing and wheezing. Your caregiver will determine if they are caused by allergies or asthma and can help find the right treatment options to improve your quality of life. If the cause of your symptoms is not certain, allergy testing can be helpful. Testing is not needed if you know that you itch every time you are around cats or lie in the grass.
3. ABCs of treatment
Treating allergies requires a consistent plan. Begin by reducing exposure to personal triggers. Make sure your house is clear of molds. Buy a bed cover and wash sheets regularly to protect against dust mites. Don’t let pets sleep in your bed. Wash stuffed animals and keep them out of your child’s bed.
Oral antihistamine (such as Zyrtec, Claritin and Benadryl) can provide relief from itchy eyes, sneezing and a runny nose. Prescription nasal steroid sprays (Flonase) provide relief from nasal congestion by preventing and decreasing inflammation in the nose. Zaditor, an antihistamine eyedrop, is used to relieve itchy eyes.
Allergy shots target the immune system response. They are used to desensitize the body to a specific allergen by injecting it in small but increasing doses. For bee stings and other severe allergies, this type of immunotherapy can help prevent anaphylaxis, a whole-body response that can lead rapidly to difficulty breathing, shock and death.
4. What is a Neti pot?
Neti pots are a popular, drug-free alternative for relieving nasal congestion. They look like small teapots and are used to flush allergens by pouring water through each nostril. If you try them, use 16 oz. of lukewarm water mixed with 1 tsp. of salt and don’t be surprised if it feels uncomfortable initially to have water in your nose.
5. How does asthma differ from allergies?
Asthma and allergies are closely related. During an asthma attack, the muscles surrounding the airways become tight and the lining of the air passages swells. Shortness of breath, wheezing and coughs are primary symptoms. If you are exposed to an allergen that causes nasal congestion and itchy eyes, it can also trigger an asthma attack. Other common asthma triggers are respiratory infections and cold air. Tobacco smoking and second-hand smoke are major triggers that should be avoided to prevent attacks and further damage to the lungs.
Most patients take long-term prescription medicines to reduce the inflammation that leads to asthma attacks. In addition, all asthma patients should have a quick-relief bronchodilator such as albuterol. When taken at the start of an asthma attack, this medicine keeps symptoms from worsening by relaxing the tightened muscles around the airways.
Asthma control is measured by daytime and nighttime symptoms. If you need your rescue inhaler more than twice a week, wake up at night with trouble breathing, or are not able to pursue normal activities, it is time to visit your healthcare professional for additional guidance.