It’s Spring, Pass the Tissues!

There are several sure signs spring has arrived. The daffodils and crocuses are up, trees are budding, migrating birds are flocking, ice cream trucks and motorcycles can be heard in the distance, and people all around us are starting to sneeze, wheeze, and sniffle.  For all its color, warmth, and wonder, springtime also heralds the return of seasonal allergies, and for millions of Americans, it’s not a pleasant visit.

The severity of allergy season can vary according to where you live, the weather, indoor contaminants, and many other elements. Seasonal allergic rhinitis is usually caused by mold spores in the air or by trees, grasses, and weeds releasing billions of tiny pollen grains.

Outdoor molds are very common, especially after the spring thaw. They are found in soil, some mulches, fallen leaves, and rotting wood. Everybody is exposed to mold and pollen, but only some people develop allergies. In these people, the immune system, which protects us from invaders like viruses and bacteria, reacts to a normally harmless substance called an allergen (allergy-causing compound). Specialized immune cells called mast cells and basophils then release chemicals like histamine that lead to the symptoms of allergy: sneezing, coughing, a runny or clogged nose, postnasal drip, and itchy eyes and throat.

Asthma and allergic diseases, such as allergic rhinitis (hay fever), food allergy, and atopic dermatitis (eczema), are common for all age groups in the United States. For example, asthma affects more than 17 million adults and more than 7 million children. It’s estimated that one-fifth of all Americans are allergic to something, whether seasonal, airborne, or food related. Nasal allergy triggers can be found both indoors and outdoors, and can be year-round or seasonal. It’s important to be aware of the times of day, seasons, places, and situations where your nasal allergy symptoms begin or worsen. If you can identify your triggers, and create a plan for avoiding them when possible, you may be able to minimize symptoms.

Here are a few points to remember:

  • You may be reacting to more than one type of allergen. For example, having nasal allergies to both trees and grass can make your symptoms worse during the spring and summer, when both of these pollens are high.
  • Molds grow in dark, wet places and can disperse spores into the air if you rake or disturb the area where they’ve settled.
  • People with indoor nasal allergies can be bothered by outdoor nasal allergies as well. You may need ongoing treatment to help relieve indoor nasal allergy symptoms.

If avoidance doesn’t work, allergies can often be controlled with medications. The first choice is an antihistamine, which counters the effects of histamine. Steroid nasal sprays can reduce mucus secretion and nasal swelling. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that the combination of antihistamines and nasal steroids is very effective in those with moderate or severe symptoms of allergic rhinitis. However, always consult with your physician before taking even over-the-counter medicines for allergies, as they may conflict with other medications or aggravate symptoms of other illnesses or chronic conditions.

Another potential solution is cromolyn sodium, a nasal spray that inhibits the release of chemicals like histamine from mast cells. But you must start taking it several days before an allergic reaction begins, which is not always practical, and its use can be habit forming. Immunotherapy, or allergy shots, is an option if the exact cause of your allergies can be pinpointed. Immunotherapy involves a long series of injections, but it can significantly reduce symptoms and medication needs.

Your physician can help pinpoint what you are allergic to, and tell you the best way to treat your nasal allergy symptoms. Providing detailed information about your lifestyle and habits will help your physician design an appropriate treatment plan for relieving your symptoms.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology has some useful tips for those who suffer from seasonal allergies:

  • Wash bed sheets weekly in hot water.
  • Always bathe and wash hair before bedtime (pollen can collect on skin and hair throughout the day).
  • Do not hang clothes outside to dry where they can trap pollens.
  • Wear a filter mask when mowing or working outdoors. Also, if you can, avoid peak times for pollen exposure (hot, dry, windy days, usually between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.).
  • Be aware of local pollen counts in your area (visit the National Allergy Bureau Website).
  • Keep house, office, and car windows closed; use air conditioning if possible rather than opening windows.
  • Perform a thorough spring cleaning of your home, including replacing heating and A/C filters and cleaning ducts and vents.
  • Check bathrooms and other damp areas in your home frequently for mold and mildew, and remove visible mold with nontoxic cleaners.
  • Keep pets out of the bedroom and off of furniture, since they may carry pollen if they have been outdoors, or exacerbate your allergies if, for example, you’re allergic to cat dander.

We can’t always avoid the pollens, mold, and other triggers that aggravate our allergies, but we can try to limit or control exposure and pursue medical interventions to help mitigate our suffering. Spring is a wonderful time of year – enjoy it to its fullest, and pass the tissues