Sitting here with box of tissues in easy reach and pausing between keystrokes to rub my eyes and blow my nose, it seems only fitting to write about what I and millions of others are experiencing this time of year—seasonal allergies. There are many things people are allergic to such as foods, medicines, topical exposures (e.g. poison ivy).
Here I shall discuss environmental allergies that are carried through the air and are seasonal in origin. These allergies are provoked by allergens that come into contact with the surface of the eyes and mucous membranes lining the respiratory tract. Allergens are tiny particles that incite a type of immune response in susceptible individuals. We are all exposed to these particles, but not all individuals react with an allergic response. Ragweed and other pollens are the sorts of things that cause misery from symptoms commonly referred to as hay fever.
When irritated, the surfaces of the eyes tend to cause symptoms such as itching, burning, and tearing. The mucous membranes in the respiratory tract swell and produce mucous. The irritation can provoke an inflammatory response which may include bronchoconstriction. The result in susceptible individuals may include symptoms of nasal congestion, sinus pressure, sneezing, and runny nose (rhinitis). Individuals with hyper-reactive airways may experience an asthma attack characterized by wheezing and difficulty breathing.
The responses from these parts of your body are pretty generic. Similar things happen with irritation provoked by the immune response to a viral illness or chemical exposure to irritants. While I am focusing on seasonal allergies, the same things happen when exposed to indoor allergens such as mold, pet dander, and dust mites. Itching, burning eyes, stuffy runny nose, sinus congestion, and/or difficulty breathing are pretty much enough to make anyone pretty miserable.
So what can you do about it?
In general, there are two basic approaches to reducing these allergy symptoms. The first is to reduce exposure. Anything you do which lessens the amount or duration of exposure to these allergens will lessen the allergic response. Since seasonal allergies largely come from outside you could reduce the amount of time you spend outside. But just when the weather is getting nice, that’s especially hard to do. However, opening up your windows will let those particles indoors, so you might want to keep the outdoors out by keeping the windows shut.
Filtering the air through use of a HEPA filter or electrostatic air purifier is another way to reduce your indoor exposure to allergens. Make sure filters are kept clean; otherwise, you may be blowing and circulating the very things you are trying to get rid of. Vacuuming, dusting and cleaning floors and other surfaces where these particles may settle is another good idea. Better yet, have someone do this for you!
Anything which reduces the time these particles remain in contact with your eyes and respiratory tract may also help reduce symptoms. A Neti pot can be used for nasal washings, but this can also be accomplished by cupping water to your nose and then blowing out. Saline nasal sprays are another way to help remove these particles from the mucosal surfaces. Cupping water to your eyes and using lubricating drops employ the same principles. Consider changing your clothes and showering after being outside. This can help remove offending allergens which would otherwise make their way from your body and clothes to your eyes and nose.
The other principle strategy to reducing allergic symptoms is to use medications to mitigate the allergic response. Since this type of allergic reaction involves the release of histamine which then triggers symptoms, antihistamines may help. These are most often taken orally. Decongestants work by reducing swelling. They can be taken orally, but are also commonly used topically. There are other more specialized prescription products such as steroid medications which help to attenuate the allergic response. There are also specialized ocular, nasal, and respiratory medications which can all be beneficial for allergy sufferers. Finally, there are desensitization shots (allergy shots) which are appropriate for some individuals. These are designed to allow your body’s immune system to adapt to offending allergens and not react by triggering an immune response after exposure. You can speak with your health care provider to learn more.
Hopefully I have given you a better understanding of and some useful tips on getting relief from your allergy symptoms.
Sniff, sniff…Achoo! Stay healthy!
Victor Acquista MD is author of “Pathways To Health: An Integral Guidebook” and a co-founder of The Collaborative for Community Health in Palmer, MA. For more information on Acquista’s book, visit http://pathstohealth.info/