With tree pollen about to peak, allergy sufferers on Florida’s west coast find the topic nothing to sneeze about.
What is an allergy?
An allergy has been described as how a body reacts to substances it cannot easily tolerate. Whether dust mites, grasses, tree pollen, pet dander or chemicals, the body launches an immunological attack producing antibodies.
Tips to Reduce Symptoms
- Avoid exposure to the pollen, even if it means remaining indoors.
- When outdoors, use a mask if necessary, to protect your airway.
- Tight-fitting glasses can help keep the pollen out of your eyes, especially while exercising.
- Keep doors and windows shut, turning on the conditioning to keep the air filtered and clean.
- Showering before bed will help wash pollen out of your hair, keeping it off your pillow and away from your airway.
Are allergies common?
Experts say allergies are listed among the most common chronic conditions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7.1 million children reported having hay fever this past year, while 17.9 million adults reported the same.
Steven Weiss, a physician and board certified Allergist/Immunologist in Clearwater, Fla. He says allergies are an exaggerated immune system response.
“A complex series of reactions are triggered, producing antibodies called Immunoglobulin E (IgE). As that substance travels to cells, histamines, leukotrienes and other mediators of inflammation are released,” he said.
Our immune systems are designed to protect us from organisms that cause illness and infection. Allergens are seen as invasive substances.
“Your immune system is trying to protect you from something it doesn’t really need protection from," said Weiss.
Experts say both genetics and environmental factors play a role. If one parent is predisposed to allergies, then children have a 25 percent chance of getting allergies. And if two parents have allergies, that number jumps to 50 percent.
For Sally Cremains, who usually suffers from hay fever in June at her Connecticut home, recent winds on Longboat Key stirred up a constellation of symptoms ranging from a stuffy nose to watery eyes, and a distinctive tickle in her throat.
“There’s pollen everywhere,” she said. “It’s on my car and even on the clothes we put on the clothesline,” she said.
Cremains says staying indoors and turning on the air conditioning helps keep her symptoms under control.
“Sixty-five to 70 percent of American families have dogs or cats and many are allergic,” Weiss said. “Limiting access of pets to beds, decreasing exposure to dander, using airtight zipped pillow case covers to decrease exposure to dust mites, and using air conditioners and keeping windows closed, can help with air circulation and decrease symptoms.”
Non-sedating, over-the-counter anti-histamines, nasal cortisone sprays and nasal antihistamines sprays may provide temporary relief. Our noses, said Weiss, are designed to be a filter. Yet unbearable facial and sinus pain is often the result of allergic reactions. Weiss said many folks benefit from using simple nasal saline solutions or Neti pots.
“Many patients love the relief they get from sinus congestion and pressure that nasal irrigation gives them” he said.
Nasal irrigation helps rinse away pollens, airborne irritants and excessive mucus in the nasal passages. If symptoms are not easily controlled through avoidance or medication, or interfere with your lifestyle, a third choice is to treat the underlying problem through immunotherapy, or allergy injections.
“In the right patient population, there’s a 75-80 percent chance we will reduce the frequency of symptoms,” Weiss said.
Allergy shots (immunotherapy) are injections containing the allergen in increasing dosages over time. Since they do not work for everyone, Weiss emphasizes the importance of assessment and patient selection. Patients undergo skin testing to establish what’s causing their allergy through the presence or absence of IgE, when a droplet of the allergen is applied in combination with a skin scratch test. Once those are established, individual serums are compounded. There is a desensitizing phase where patients are given injections that could be administered weekly for six to 10 months.
Gradually, the intervals are stretched out including a monthly booster shot over a three-to-five year period. Weiss also said there’s been a definite increase in the patients he’s seen with allergies during the past two decades that spans all age groups.
“The population is aging in a healthy way, so it’s not unusual we‘re seeing otherwise healthy people in their 80s and 90s with allergies," he said.
Recent genetic and immunological advances have yielded insight into the causes of allergies and expanded treatment options. "It’s an exciting time", said Weiss.
“If you look at advances in medicine, the fields of immunology and genetics have helped us identify and isolate abnormal genes and treat patients at a cellular level,” he said.
Currently, those suffering from watery, itchy eyes, and sneezing are most likely having an allergic response to oak pollen.
Weiss also said small children with itchy eyes can experience dramatic swelling that can resemble infection and those with allergies often say they have “hay fever”. That’s essentially a lay term applied to ragweed pollen, the predominant allergen found in the northeast and Midwest. It’s a term now used generically to describe allergic rhinitis, often caused by exposure to dust mites, molds, or pet dander. Related symptoms and conditions include:
• Asthma- frequent episodes of wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath and sometimes, a feeling of chest tightness. Patients with asthma are more prone to sinus infections, (Rhinosinusitis) which can worsen asthmatic symptoms.
• Urticaria (hives) are red, itchy, swollen areas on the skin affecting nearly 20 percent of people. Yet Weiss cautions that not every red bump is a hive.
“The take-home message,” said Weiss, “is to be aware of your allergy triggers. A Board Certified Allergist/Immunologist can be a valuable ally in your battle against allergies and relief is available.”
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