Dr. Lynda Kabbash, Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates
From sneezing and watery eyes to nasal congestion and sinus pressure, the millions of Americans who currently suffer from seasonal allergies are in for a difficult spring. Due to a colder-than-average winter followed by warmer temperatures, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America predicts seasonal allergies symptoms to tree, grass, or weed pollens and other airborne allergens could be particularly bad this year.
Fortunately, if you do suffer from seasonal allergies, there are steps you can take to get much-needed relief this season.
Many people don't know exactly what they're allergic to, but there are some easy ways to find out.
Certain pollens and molds consistently come out at certain times of the year. For example, if you can’t stop sneezing in April, you’re probably allergic to maple tree pollen. However, it gets harder to discern what might be setting off your seasonal allergies later in the season, as many trees and grasses peak closer to the end of the spring.
To determine what you might be allergic to, you can research pollen counts online. Websites like www.pollen.com list the pollen counts of different plants day-by-day. By tracking symptoms and allergens over a week or two, you can pinpoint the offending plants or molds.
Try over-the-counter allergy medicines first.
Twenty years ago the practice of treating seasonal allergies significantly changed for the better with the introduction of the 24-hour antihistamine. Over-the-counter antihistamines like Zyrtec, Allegra, and Claritin work by preventing your reaction to an allergen, and because they are long-lasting, people can get around-the-clock relief with them. Eye-drops and nasal steroids like Nasacort may also help treat allergy symptoms. If you know what you’re allergic to, or know the time of year when symptoms usually materialize, you should begin taking an antihistamine about a week before the start of that pollinating season.
Try allergen prevention, too!
Even if you know what you’re allergic to, the reality is that it can be very hard to avoid it entirely. There are several things you can do to mitigate your exposure to allergens, including:
- Keep your car windows up and keep your bedroom windows closed.
- Avoid outdoor activities at down or dusk, peak times for pollen.
- Dust windowsills daily with a damp cloth and put dirt clothes into a covered hamper.
- Shower and rinse your hair before bedtime.
When everything else isn’t enough, try allergy testing and immunotherapy.
Allergy shots are a form of treatment called immunotherapy and work like vaccines. Each allergy shot contains a tiny amount of the specific substance or substances, called “allergens” that trigger your allergic reaction. Allergy shots contain just enough of the allergen to stimulate your immune system to develop a tolerance to the allergen, but not enough to cause a full-blown allergic reaction. Over time, your allergist will increase the amount of the allergen so your body can become further desensitized to them. With immunotherapy, your allergy symptoms diminish over time.
Before starting immunotherapy, you will first need to have an allergy test. Not only does this confirm what you are allergic to, but it can also show how severe your allergy is. This information will guide your allergist in developing the most effective immunotherapy dosage and schedule for you.
When you receive an allergy shot, you stay in the office for about 30 minutes to make sure you do not have a reaction to the allergen in the shot. Once you start a regimen of allergy shots, you will usually stay on it for 3-5 annual cycles. After that, your doctor may recommend that you stop the immunotherapy and reevaluate whether the shots are still necessary, as people’s tolerances can change dramatically. If allergies again become worse, you’ll need to continue allergy shots.
This allergy season, try these tips, and be sure to see a medical professional if you have any questions or concerns.
About Dr. Lynda Kabbash
Dr. Lynda Kabbash joined Harvard Vanguard in 1999 and practices in the Quincy and Post Office Square locations. She is certified in Internal Medicine and Allergy and Clinical Immunology.