By Alpen Patel, MD
Spring is here and with its beauty comes budding trees, greening grass, blooming flowers — and allergies. While many of us long for warmer weather and getting outdoors more, most of us do not look forward to the pollen that it brings. Unfortunately, for the next few weeks as pollen counts increase, allergy sufferers can expect a surge in sniffling and clogged nose, sneezing, watery eyes, and coughing and scratchy throat.
Of course Atlantans are not the only ones suffering the pollen onslaught. As many as 40-50 million people in the United States suffer from allergies, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
So, what causes allergies? Essentially, an allergy is an increased hypersensitivity to a specific substance that causes a reaction. An allergy comes about when the immune system, which is there to protect us from microbial invaders like viruses and bacteria, reacts to a normally harmless substance.
Environmental allergens, or allergens found in your everyday environment, include pollen, mold, dust and dander from animals or other elements. Some foods, harmless to non-allergic people, can be very harmful to those who are allergic to them. Foods known to cause the most common allergies are dairy, eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish.
Nasal congestion can be one of the key symptoms of an allergy. It is a natural part of the body’s inflammatory response to histamine (a compound released by cells of the body’s immune system during an allergic reaction). If you experience nasal congestion or some of the other symptoms I described above, you probably are having an allergy attack.
Beginning in March and early April, we see a variety of allergens in the air. Tree pollens are the worst springtime offenders. In early summer comes grass pollens, and in late summer and fall come weed pollens such as ragweed.
Allergists can offer skin and blood testing to identify substances or allergens that cause sensitivities. Once I determine the type of an allergy a patient has, I can work with him or her to develop a personalized treatment plan. This may include allergy shots, medications, antihistamines, decongestants and corticosteroids. In addition, I may suggest saline washes and nighttime showers for removing pollen collected in the nose and on the body during the day. Sunny, dry, windy days can be tough on people with pollen allergies, so try to stay indoors on those days with the windows closed and the air conditioner on.
One of the newest treatments for environmental allergens that we use at Emory is allergy drops — self-administered daily allergy drops given under the tongue. Called sublingual immunotherapy, this new form of treatment is much more convenient for patients, equally effective and safer than receiving allergy injections. As with traditional allergy shots, allergy drops are not quick fixes. It still takes several months to build up immunity to the most common allergens before reaching a maintenance level. Once there, patients will take the drops for three to five years, as they would with allergy shots.
Your doctor can help you sort out whether you have allergies, but you can help with information he or she needs for the diagnosis. You can keep track of when and where you get symptoms, for one. Check your local pollen and mold counts and see if high numbers match up with when you get your symptoms. Controlling allergies requires planning, skill and patience. An allergist has specialized training and can develop a treatment plan for your individual condition. In the end, we want to enable you to lead a life that is as normal and symptom-free as possible.
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