What Are Allergies & What Can You Do About Them?

Due to our harsh winter, the spring allergies this season will be worse than ever. The moisture of the heavy snow almost everywhere in the United States has fueled tree pollen. Think of it as a long drink of winter water that the tree buds are loving!

So, as the trees start to bloom and our eyes start to itch, we start to sneeze and cough, becoming miserable. But knowledge is power, and understanding your allergies can help you defend against them. Here are a few questions I get asked all the time:

1. How do we differentiate between allergies and the common cold?

A cold is caused by a virus and when a virus attacks the body, we feel run down, congested, have a low-grade fever and sometimes a productive cough and yellow or green mucus. An allergy is confined to our throat, head, ears and eyes; the remainder of our bodies feel normal. A virus attacks our white blood cells and makes us fatigued and cranky, not itchy and sneezy with clear, running itchy eyes.

2. What if we've never had allergies before?

Allergies can start at any age, so don’t be fooled just because you've never had seasonal allergies before.

3. So, how do we best treat this unwelcome and annoying gift of spring?

Allergic rhinitis (the fancy name for spring allergies), is caused by pollen — flower pollen, grass pollen, tree pollen, etc. The most effective way to treat this type of allergy is with over the counter antihistamine medications such as Claritin, Zyrtec or Allegra.

Remember that pollen can live on your skin, your clothes and your pets, so make sure to change your clothes when you come inside from an afternoon in the park. If you're sneezing and your eyes are itching, a shower will really help. Get the pollen off your skin and take an over the counter pill and you should experience marked improvement.

If you suffer from seasonal allergic rhinitis, you can take a long acting, once a day non-drowsy antihistamine mentioned above every morning during the season.

4. Is there a way to prevent this from happening?

There are simple and effective ways, such as starting a steroid nasal spray at least 3 months before the season starts. These nasal sprays are both by prescription and over the counter. As always, check with your doctor. The nasal sprays prevent the pollen from being absorbed and lessen symptoms. For some people this is enough, but most people will require more permanent treatments.

The most efficient treatment is to get allergy shots to prevent spring allergies all together. I suffered with spring allergies all through my childhood and young adult years and didn’t want to get allergy shots.

One day, as a young mother of three children, I bit into an apple and my mouth and lips got itchy and swollen. I panicked! I ran to the allergist, who explained to me that it wasn't the apple I was allergic to, but rather, the tree that the apple grows on. That was enough for me and I began my shots and have never taken an antihistamine since!

If you are "shot shy," speak to your allergist about state of the art, breaking treatments such as desensitizing sublingual treatments (drops under the tongue instead of shots).

5. What about more serious life-threatening allergies?

The number one allergy that comes to mind is a peanut allergy. Everyone asks why peanut allergies are on the rise. There are many theories around but no real answer. Is it the restrictions we put on pregnant women? Is the diet of newborns? Is it the environment? We have no definite answers, but we know that food allergies are here to stay and we need to take them seriously.

To start, anyone with a food allergy, such as a peanut allergy, needs to avoid the product completely. An EpiPen (a pre-filled dose of Adrenalin) needs to be carried at all times and renewed frequently, as the shelf live is very short. Be sure to ask your pediatrician, your internist, or your allergist to instruct you in the proper and safe way to use of the EpiPen. You must be very comfortable with the use of the EpiPen so that you don't panic if your child is having trouble breathing.

These recommendations are also true for people with serious pet allergies, bee sting allergies, etc.

In terms of pets, there are several breeds of dogs and cats that are recommended for severely allergic people. Check with your veterinarian.

6. How do severe allergic reactions happen?

When our body sees a potential allergen, such as a bee sting, our immune system builds a defense. When the body sees the allergen again, most of us have immune systems that fight off the allergen effectively. In the small subset of people that have life threatening allergic reactions, their immune systems release a large amount of histamine, which can constrict a person's airway and stop their breathing.

Be safe and be prepared! Allergies are all around us and are here to stay. So, this spring, when you step outside and start to sneeze, just know that it is a reflection of a healthy immune system!

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