From sneezing and itchy eyes to more serious issues like sinus infections and asthma attacks, allergy symptoms have the potential to make even the most beautiful spring day unpleasant. Fortunately it is possible to keep many of these allergies at bay. Read on as we pinpoint some of the most common triggers and get the experts to weigh in on the latest advances in allergy prevention.
What causes allergies?
In short, allergies are caused by allergens, or protein particles like pollen, food or dander that enters our bodies through a number of ways. These offending agents can be inhaled into the nose and lungs, ingested by mouth, absorbed through the skin, or in the case of medications, delivered by needle. If your body is sensitive to these particles, it causes an allergic reaction.
“Allergies can be cumulative,” says Dr. Stanley Fineman of Atlanta Allergy and Asthma. “Think of a bucket. Now add in a bit of dust, dog dander and pollen. Eventually it spills over and you have symptoms. People have a certain threshold – or bucket – and in certain people it can spill over sooner.”
Determining the cause of your allergies is a fairly easy process thanks to the variety of skin tests available today. “Allergy skin tests are very effective,” Dr. Fineman says. “This is the best way to diagnose inhalant allergies. Someone will have an abnormal antibody that causes them to release histamine when the tissues are exposed to allergens. So with a skin test, you expose the tissue – or skin – and the body reacts with a red itchy area, or wheal and flare. People who are most sensitive have a larger skin test reaction.”
Antihistamines vs. decongestants
Antihistamines and decongestants are the most common medicines used for allergies, but it’s important to know what’s what. “Antihistamines are the main treatment for allergies because histamines are the main cause of allergies,” explains Dr. Eugene Hurwitz of the Center for Allergy & Asthma of Georgia. “Decongestants are typically used for patients with congestion that is non-allergy-related.”
A commonly prescribed medication is Zyrtec-D, which contains both an antihistamine and decongestant. And while this offers immediate relief, Dr. Thomas Chacko of Northside ENT says this can be dangerous to use on a long term basis. “People shouldn’t use Zyrtec-D for too long because anything with Sudafed (the “D”) can increase blood pressure and heart rate,” he says. “Antihistamines are safe to use on a regular basis, so taking Zyrtec alone is fine.”
If you still have trouble keeping antihistamines and decongestants straight, just remember this: Antihistamines are usually found in nighttime medicines because they may make you drowsy. Decongestants are typically found in daytime cold medicines because they tend to keep you awake.
There is a lot that can be done for people who have allergies and asthma and the way they feel on a day-to-day basis. We have so many different treatment options available to us now that almost all patients can get their conditions under control, allowing them to live a normal life, relatively symptom-free with relatively rare episodes.
If antihistamines aren’t enough, however, your doctor may recommend immunotherapy, or allergy shots. This is most effective for people with hay fever and certain animal allergies. “We build up your tolerance - or make your bucket bigger - with allergy shots,” Dr. Fineman says. “This way you can tolerate exposure to more allergens.”
For people who don’t like injections, oral immunotherapy is available through many doctor’s offices, though most experts will tell you this treatment isn’t as effective as the shots. Oral immunotherapy is taken as drops, and they are usually placed under the tongue for about two minutes then swallowed. “Oral drops haven’t been approved by FDA, and they’re not covered by insurance typically,” Dr. Hurwitz says. “Some practices provide them, but you have to be willing to pay out of pocket.”
Allergies and asthma
When nasal allergies go undiagnosed or are left untreated, people can have a number of complications including sinusitis, or a sinus infection. This is particularly true in people with asthma. “Most patients who have asthma have an underlying allergic condition that triggers it,” Dr. Hurwitz explains. “Treating the allergy is a means of treating the inflammation that results in allergic asthma. Many times if you treat the allergy, the asthma improves. Sometimes we can get children off asthma medication and reduce the frequency of flare-ups.”
Indoor vs. outdoor allergies
“Outdoor allergens follow a seasonal pattern, and indoor allergies can trigger symptoms all year long,” says Dr. Rodney Johnson of Atlanta ENT, Sinus & Allergy Associates. “One of the most common allergens in your home is dust mites, which we tend to find in bedding, mattresses and box springs. Even very clean houses have these because they feed on human dander. Other common ones include pet dander and molds, especially here in Georgia.”
While outdoor allergens are often preventable, certain indoor allergies can be tougher to avoid. In a recent investigation by CNN, chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta proved just that. He exposed a number of schools that had dangerous indoor air problems, resulting in respiratory issues in both students and teachers alike. According to his report, 20 to 30 percent of people are susceptible to mold or dust, which triggers symptoms like itchy eyes, runny nose, coughing, headaches, fatigue, memory problems and slowed thinking.
Studies estimate about one-third of U.S. schools have mold, dust and other indoor air problems, and cleaning it often isn’t enough. The moisture source must be found and eliminated, otherwise the building is still unhealthy. “An important area that often goes unnoticed is the basement, where mold can thrive,” Dr. Chacko says. “Other places to pay attention to are bathrooms or areas where there may be a leak in the roof.”
Atlanta Allergy and Asthma, www.atlantaallergy.com
Atlanta ENT, Sinus & Allergy Associates, www.atlantaent.com
Build Smart, Breathe Easier, www.buildsmartbreatheeasier.com
Center for Allergy & Asthma of Georgia, www.caawg.com
Northside ENT, www.atlantaentdoctors.com
MERV Ratings, www.airpurifierguide.com
Tips for an Allergy-Free Home
- Clean regularly with the right tools. Choose cleaning solutions with minimal or no chemical scents, odors or VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which can trigger asthma symptoms, depending on their ingredients.
- Vacuum rugs and carpeting frequently. Choose a vacuum cleaner that can effectively pick up allergens, has a HEPA filter and is tightly sealed so particles do not escape.
- Remove shoes and brush off clothes before coming indoors. This will help cut down on pollen and other allergens.
- Wash pillows and bedding often. Use pillows that can withstand frequent washing, and ensure your washing machine is able to reach a water temperature of 130°F to kill dust mites and their eggs. Consider purchasing dust mite resistant mattress and pillowcases.
- Use vinyl or wood blinds and simple shades for windows. These window treatments do not promote as much allergen accumulation as drapes and curtains.They can also be more easily cleaned on a regular basis.
- Keep indoor plants that are less likely to trigger allergic reactions. Plants that are less likely to trigger symptoms include begonia, cactus, orchids, peace lilies or even herbs like bay, parsley or thyme.
- Seal your windows and doors. For drafty doors, buy door strips or weather stripping to close the gaps or consider replacing with a proper-fitting door if gaps are significant. For drafty windows, re-caulk any exterior or interior cracks with a low-chemical, latex-free caulk.
- Choose hard surface flooring, such as wood, linoleum or vinyl. Avoid plywood or pressed wood wall paneling, particleboard, frames, fiberboard and insulation, as many of these items release high levels of VOCs.
- Invest in a good central heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system. If you have an HVAC system, be sure it has a replaceable or washable high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter and be sure to clean or change the filter. In addition, ducts throughout the house should be unobstructed and large enough to circulate air throughout.
-Courtesy of HGTV’s Carter Oosterhouse