If you typically spend the end of August nursing a "summer cold" that lasts more than two or three days, you may be suffering from a seasonal allergy known as "hay fever." Ragweed, golden rod and pig weed grow at this time of year releasing pollens that can create uncomfortable symptoms for many people. Fortunately, you don't have to suffer until the first frost (typically Halloween) tamps these pollens (called allergens) down to get relief!
Allergies and related asthma affect about 50 million Americans. An allergy is actually a sign of a healthy immune system. Your body naturally responds to invading bacteria and viruses by releasing chemicals (histamines) that attack and destroy them. When a person with hay fever comes in contact with certain pollens, his body unleashes a dramatic defense - more aggressive than needed - to get those invaders out of the body. The overwhelming release of histamines results in watery eyes, runny nose, rashes, coughing and wheezing which are the body's way of fighting off unwanted micro-visitors.
Because seasonal allergy reactions can lead to asthma and sinus infections, it's best to be proactive and keep your symptoms under control. While rainy days don't pose much of a problem, sunny, windy "high pollen" days are good days to stay indoors with air conditioning and out of contact with allergens.
Each person with hay fever has a unique reaction. Mild allergy symptoms can typically be managed with over-the-counter medications, called antihistamines, taken as needed. A daily saline wash to clear nasal passages of dusts and pollens can help limit reactions as well.
If you have a more intense response, prescription medications can provide relief. The trick for the greatest effect with these medications is to begin taking them about six weeks before allergy season arrives. If you watch television, you will note that advertisements for these products begin to run in June, and that's the time of year you want to get started to prevent hay fever. Your family doctor can typically provide a prescription for these medications.
When allergies impact your quality of life - prevent you from working, socializing or carrying on normal daily activities - you should see a specialist called an allergist. The allergist is a physician who specializes in diagnosing and treating both asthma and other allergic diseases. An allergist has the unique distinction of being able to test you to determine the specific cause of your allergic reaction. With this information he can help you develop a comprehensive plan to prevent and control your symptoms. Your treatment plan can include strategies, such as staying indoors, to avoid exposure.
Testing for allergies can be done with a skin test or a blood test. The skin test is fastest. A sample of one or more suspected allergens is put in contact with the skin to determine if there is a reaction (the reaction would be mild - similar to a mosquito bite - lasting less than 24 hours.) For the blood test, often used when a patient's medication could interfere with results, a blood sample is taken and sent to a laboratory. It can take several days to receive the results.
Based on confirmed allergies, your allergist can provide immunotherapy, or allergy shots, to help you develop a tolerance to specific allergens over the course of two or three years. A number of new prescription allergy medications are also very effective in controlling symptoms. An allergist can help you determine the best treatment based on your lifestyle and condition.
Mihail is an otolaryngic allergist who manages chemical, environmental and food allergies in children and adults.