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Spring into Spring Symptom Free!

Allergy image

While most people gratefully welcome the longer days and warmer weather of spring, people with hay fever often dread the itchy eyes, runny nose, and sneezing that comes with the season’s pollens and mold spores.

What causes my allergies to flare up in the spring?
Pollen is the most likely cause. Your immune system has mistakenly learned to remember the pollen released by various plants as potentially harmful, and responds with the familiar allergic symptoms. Each species of plant releases pollen at about the same time every year. Trees are usually the first plants to release pollen, usually in the early spring. Grasses come next in the spring and early summer. Weeds generally release their pollen in late summer and fall. People with seasonal rhinitis are often allergic to more than one type of pollen.

What can influence the severity of the allergy season?
Weather can influence the timing and severity of the allergy season. A mild winter often leads to a more severe pollen season. The grass season varies the most. If the spring is warmer and wetter than usual, then more grass grows, which leads to a more severe season during the late spring and summer. However, rain can have benefits, as well. For instance, rain can wash pollen that has already been released out of the air.

How can I tell whether I have allergies or just a cold?
Generally, allergies last longer than a cold. If you notice a pattern in which you experience the same symptoms at the same time year after year, you likely have allergies. Frequent sneezing and itchy, watery eyes are more often associated with an allergy rather than a cold. Also, a clear nasal discharge suggests that you have allergies. When you have a cold, the mucus is usually greenish or yellowish. Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between seasonal allergies, a cold, or another condition. That’s when skin tests and an evaluation by a doctor may be necessary.

Trees are usually the first plants to release pollen, usually in the early spring.

What is a skin test? How does it work?
A skin test detects the presence of antibodies to a particular allergen. A positive test suggests that you may have an allergy to the particular substance. However, your doctor will review your skin-test results and your medical history and will conduct a physical exam to confirm which allergens are causing your symptoms. A skin test is performed by first placing a drop of allergen extract on the skin; then the skin is pricked with a needle. If you have a positive reaction to the extract, a red welt will appear on your skin. If you do not react to the extract, you are most likely not allergic to the substance.

How are seasonal allergies treated?
There are three main strategies for treating seasonal allergies:

` Avoidance
Although it can be difficult to completely avoid pollen, there are several steps you can take to reduce your exposure. First, keep your windows closed and use air conditioning – even on days that are not extremely warm. Next, avoid outdoor activities during peak pollen times. Grass pollens are most prevalent during afternoon and early evening, while ragweed pollens are most prevalent during early midday. Pollen counts are commonly high during dry, windy afternoons. Finally, take a shower and change your clothes after spending time outside. A shower washes off the pollen that sticks to your skin or hair. Keep your outside clothes in the laundry room and away from your bedroom.

` Medication
Antihistamines can reduce runny nose, sneezing, and itchy, watery eyes. These are available both over the counter and as prescriptions. Antihistamine eye drops, also available by prescription, can help itchy eyes. Another type of medicine, called montelukast, that can be used for nasal allergy symptoms blocks a molecule called leukotriene. It may be beneficial for some people. In many cases of hay fever, prescription nasal steroid sprays are used to decrease nasal allergy symptoms. You should talk to your doctor about what medications are best for you.

` Immunotherapy
If avoidance and medications fail to control your symptoms, immunotherapy can usually help. Also known as allergy shots, immunotherapy consists of a series of injections containing the allergen that triggers your symptoms. Over time, the shots reduce your sensitivity to the allergens. Immunotherapy usually begins with injections of a very weak solution of the allergen given once or twice a week. The strength of the solution is gradually increased. Once the strongest dose is reached, shots continue about once a month until the allergy symptoms are controlled, often for three to five years. There are now newer approaches that allow the dose of allergy shots to be built up much more quickly; however, the total course of therapy is still usually three to five years.

 

Source: National Jewish Health, www.nationaljewish.org

This article was originally published in Coping® with Allergies & Asthma magazine, March/April 2011.