Are Allergies Making You Fuzzy?
Sneezing, wheezing, watery eyes, and a runny nose aren’t the only symptoms of allergic diseases. Many people with allergic rhinitis also report feeling “slower” and drowsy. When their allergies are acting up, they have trouble concentrating and remembering.
For instance, allergic rhinitis can be associated with decreased ability to concentrate and function, activity limitation, decreased decision-making capacity, impaired hand-eye coordination, problems remembering things, irritability, sleep disorders, fatigue, missed days at work or school, more motor vehicle accidents, and more school or work injuries.
Many parents of children with allergic rhinitis observe increased bad moods and irritability in their child’s behavior during the allergy season. Since children cannot always express their uncomfortable or painful symptoms verbally, they may express their discomfort by acting up at school and at home. In addition, some kids feel that having an allergic disease is a stigma that separates them from other kids.
It is important that the irritability or other symptoms caused by ear, nose, or throat trouble not be mistaken for attention deficit disorder. With proper treatment, symptoms can be kept under control and disruptions in learning and behavior can be avoided.
Experts believe the top two culprits contributing to cognitive impairment of people with allergic rhinitis are sleep interruptions and sedating antihistamine (over-the-counter) medications.
If you have bad allergic rhinitis, you may waken a dozen times a night.
Secondary factors, such as blockage of the Eustachian tube (ear canal), also can cause hearing problems that have a negative impact on learning and comprehension. Constant nose blowing and coughing can interrupt concentration and the learning process, and allergy-related absences from school or work can cause people to fall behind.
Chronic nasal congestion can cause difficulty in breathing, especially at night. Waking is a hard-wired reflex to make you start breathing again. If you have bad allergic rhinitis, you may waken a dozen times a night. Falling back asleep can be difficult, cutting your total number of sleep hours short.
The average person needs about eight hours of sleep per night to function normally the next day. Losing just a few hours of sleep can lead to a significant decrease in your ability to function. Prolonged loss of sleep can cause difficulty in concentration and ability to remember things, and can contribute to automotive accidents. Night after night of interrupted sleep can cause serious decreases in learning ability and performance in school or on the job.
Most allergy therapies don’t take into account the effects of allergic rhinitis on mental functioning – they treat the more obvious physical symptoms. Some allergy therapies may even cause some cognitive or mental impairment. The most commonly used over-the-counter medications for allergy symptoms are decongestants and first-generation antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl®), both of which can cause sleep disturbances.
Decongestants constrict small blood vessels in the nose. This opens the nasal passageways and lets you breathe easier. Some decongestants are available over the counter, while higher strength formulas are available with a prescription. In some people, oral decongestants can cause problems with getting to sleep, appetite loss, and irritability, which can contribute to allergy problems. If you have any of these symptoms, discuss them with your allergist.
Antihistamines block the effects of histamine, a chemical produced by the body in response to allergens. Histamine is responsible for the symptoms of allergic rhinitis. First-generation over-the-counter antihistamines available in the United States also can cause drowsiness. Regularly taking over-thecounter antihistamines can lead to a feeling of constant sluggishness, affecting learning, memory, and performance. Newer second-generation antihistamines are designed to minimize drowsiness while still blocking the effects of histamine.
The best way to control your symptoms is to avoid your triggers. This is often easier said than done. If your allergens can’t be avoided, your allergist can help you create an allergy treatment plan. Several types of nonsedating medications are available to help control allergies. If medications are not effective or cause unwanted side effects, your allergist may suggest immunotherapy, or allergy shots. Immunotherapy is used to treat allergy to pollen, ragweed, dust mites, animal dander, and other allergens. This process gradually desensitizes you to these substances by changing the way your body’s immune system responds to them.
If allergies are affecting your ability to concentrate or function, several treatment options may be beneficial. Getting allergy symptoms under control can help you sleep at night and function during the day.
If you suspect that you or a family member may have an allergic disorder, make an appointment with your allergist for proper diagnosis. Treating allergies sooner rather than later can help prevent disruptions in learning and behavior.
Source: American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, www.acaai.org
This article was originally published in Coping® with Allergies & Asthma magazine, September/October 2011.