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Nip allergies in the bud

CDC expects a bad allergy season

Spring is officially here and so is allergy season. If you’re one of the 50 million Americans who suffer from seasonal allergies, this spring may make you miserable.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is calling for one of the most severe allergy seasons in years because of the damp, cold winter.

“A warm, dry spring following a wet winter is a recipe for high pollen counts,” Dr. John Bosso, chief of allergy and immunology at Nyack Hospital in New York, said in a release. “If we were to have a wet spring, pollen might not be such a problem.”

In Charlotte, allergy season is in full bloom. “We started seeing patients with allergy symptoms 3-4 weeks earlier than usual,” said Dr. Jack Shepherd, a specialist in family medicine practicing at Novant Health Urgent Care & Occupational Medicine in Matthews, North Carolina.

“Overall, we’re seeing an increase in people with seasonal allergies, many of whom say they weren’t bothered by allergies years ago,” he added.

Allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S. with an annual cost of more than $18 billion. As many as 1 in 5 Americans suffer from allergies each year, reports the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

You may already be experiencing the hallmarks of seasonal allergies: sneezing, runny nose, congestion, watery eyes and itching that are symptoms of allergic rhinitis or hay fever, the other names for allergies.

Seasonal allergies are reactions to the bloom in trees and grasses when their pollen is strewn by the winds. The immune system reacts to the particles in the air by releasing chemicals like histamines, which trigger the body’s reactions such as sneezing and a runny nose.

“Over-the-counter medicines like Zyrtec and Claritin do a good job treating symptoms without the sedative effect of products like Benadryl,” Shepherd said.

There are a number of over-the-counter treatments available to help manage the symptoms of seasonal allergies, including antihistamines such as Claritin, Alavert, Zyrtec and Allegra. An older class of antihistamines with brand names like Benadryl or Chlor-Trimeton is also effective for sneezing and runny noses but cause drowsiness. People with medical conditions such as hypertension and diabetes should check with their doctors before taking these drugs. Coricidin HBP may help with symptoms without affecting blood pressure.

Shepherd said that men with trouble urinating or prostrate problems also should consult with a doctor before using antihistamines and decongestants.

Oral decongestants like Sudafed or Afrinol can help alleviate nasal stuffiness but these products contain pseudoephedrine, which can elevate heart rate. People who have heart disease should consult with a doctor before taking these drugs. 

Nasal sprays with cromolyn sodium like Nasalcrom can help with runny and stuffy noses as well as post-nasal drip. Other nasal sprays like Nasacort contain corticosteroids and help reduce swelling and stuffiness in the nose.

“Nasacort works very well and is best used before a lot of symptoms of allergy develop,” Shepherd said.

Rinsing your sinuses with a distilled saline is a good way to relieve congestion. Neti pots or squeeze bottles for this purpose can be found at most pharmacies.

“A good nasal rinsing washes away many allergens and a lot of mucus,” Shepherd said. “Make sure the solution used is sterile.”

“People need to carefully read the labels when choosing medications, particularly with two active ingredients,” Shepherd said. “For instance, if you’re taking Zyrtec D and Sudafed, you may be taking too much Sudafed.” He added that with hundreds of products available at the pharmacy’s cold and allergy aisle, choosing your drugs can be a daunting process.

For most allergy sufferers, these over-the-counter treatments are enough to ease the discomfort. “Most people are treated without immunotherapy,” Shepherd said.

For severe cases, other options are available through a doctor’s office. In some cases, your physician may recommend skin tests to determine the exact nature of your allergy and prescribe allergy shots.  

The best way to manage allergies is allergen avoidance, Dr. Shepherd recommended. “Don’t keep your windows open at home or when driving your car,” he said. “Delegate yard chores to someone else.”

Avoiding allergens in the air can be tough but some steps can help reduce exposure and help manage your symptoms:

  • Consider staying indoors if it’s windy outside.
  • Vacuum floors frequently.
  • After being outside, change and wash your clothes so you don’t spread allergens in your house.

The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology offered these additional suggestions for dealing with spring allergies:

  • Avoid wearing synthetic fabrics that can attract pollen. Choose clothes made of natural fibers like cotton, which breathes better and stays drier, making them less likely to harbor mold.
  • If you exercise outside, aim to run or walk when pollen counts are their lowest – in the early morning and early evening.
  • If you garden, take an antihistamine a half-hour before working outdoors. Also wear gloves and a face mask while outside, and wash your hands, hair and clothes after you go back indoors.
  • Limit your exposure to indoor allergens to help with the severity of your spring allergies. Vacuum your furniture and leave your shoes by the door. Use a dehumidifier and air purifier with a HEPA filter.

Shepherd said he is struck by the number of patients he sees who haven’t been exposed to seasonal allergens before. Many people from Arizona or Texas have never had hay fever until moving to Charlotte, a city known for the beauty of its tree canopy.

Published: 4/1/2015