September seems to be one of the worst months for nasal allergies, also known as hay fever. Blame it on the seasons changing, but the coughing, sneezing and eye itching always seems to flare up in the fall.
“Fortunately, allergies are rarely life threatening,” says Rajiv Pandit, MD, FACS, an ear, nose, and throat specialist on the medical staff at Methodist Dallas Medical Center. “But, the discomfort they bring, along with lost work days, decreased work efficiency, poor school performance and millions spent on anti-allergy medications, make allergies a huge problem for allergy sufferers.”
The unwelcome invaders
Allergy symptoms are your body’s reaction to substances called allergens. “To your immune system, allergens are unwelcome invaders,” says Dr. Pandit. “The immune system responds by producing inflammatory substances like histamine.” We can blame many common allergy symptoms like itchy, watery eyes; nasal and sinus congestion; headaches, sneezing, scratchy throat, hives, and shortness of breath, on histamine. Histamine can also affect your balance and cause skin irritations like eczema, and respiratory problems like asthma.
Where do allergens come from?
Many common substances can be allergens. Pollens, food, mold, dust, chemicals, drugs like penicillin, feathers, environmental pollutants, trees, grass, even pet dander from your cute little puppy, can all be allergens.
So what should I do?
Controlling your allergy symptoms works best when you use several approaches simultaneously. Here are some suggestions.
- Reduce your exposure to common allergens.
- Wear a pollen mask when mowing grass or house cleaning. Masks are available at most drugstores.
- Change air filters in heating and air conditioning systems regularly, and/or install an air purifier.
- Keep windows and doors closed during heavy pollen seasons.
- Rid the home of sources of mildew.
- Don't allow dander-producing animals (i.e., cats, dogs, etc.) into and bedroom. Shopping for a furry family member? Try to get a dog that doesn’t shed. The non-shedding coats produce less dander. Dander, which is attached to pet hair, is what causes most pet allergies in humans. No dog is truly hypoallergenic, even non-shedding dogs still produce some dander. If your dog or cat is causing you discomfort, don’t allow them on the furniture or in your bedroom.
- Change feather pillows, woolen blankets, and woolen clothing to cotton or synthetic materials.
- Enclose mattress, box springs, and pillows in plastic barrier cloth.
- Use antihistamines and decongestants as necessary and as tolerated. When used properly, medications like antihistamines, nasal decongestant sprays, steroid sprays, saline sprays, and cortisone-type preparations, can be helpful. Even over-the-counter drugs can be beneficial, although some may cause drowsiness. Check with your doctor before taking a new medication.
- Sleep with the head of the bed tilted using pillows. Elevating the head of the bed helps relieve nasal congestion.
- Observe general good health practices: exercise daily; do not smoke; avoid air pollutants; eat a balanced diet; and supplement diet with vitamins, especially C.
- Use a humidifier in the winter. Be sure to clean the humidifier regularly to avoid mold build-up.
- Discuss hay fever and allergy symptoms with a physician if you experience an allergic reaction.
A word on holistic treatments
Some holistic treatments can make a difference. Nasal irrigations with lukewarm salt water can wash out pollen from your nose. A good quality air purifier with a HEPA filter, used very night, is also helpful.
Locally-produced honey may improve your tolerance to local pollens, although no definitive scientific proof has been established yet. Finally, improving overall breathing through brisk walking or yoga will enhance your respiratory system overall.
When should I see a doctor?
If you experience an allergic reaction, you should see a doctor immediately. Likewise, if you are unable to find relief and your symptoms continue, the most appropriate person to evaluate allergy problems is an ear, nose, and throat specialist, also called an otolaryngologist. Besides gathering a detailed history and completing a thorough examination of your ears, nose, throat, head, and neck, an ENT can offer advice on controlling your environment and evaluate your sinuses to determine if infection or a physical abnormality (deviated septum, polyps) is contributing to your symptoms.
The doctor may advise testing to determine the specific allergen that is causing discomfort. In some cases, allergy shots or immunotherapy may be recommended. Immunotherapy is a unique treatment that stimulates the buildup of protective antibodies to fight specific allergens.
You don’t have to let allergies get the best of you this fall. Instead, take a deep breath. Help is available.