Northwestern Memorial Experts Provide Tips for Managing Spring Allergies
Warmer temperatures bring allergy symptoms for millions
Spring has sprung and warmer weather is on the way, bringing with it signs of the season such as tree blossoms and green grass. While most welcome the opportunity to tuck away winter clothes and spend more time outdoors, the turn of the season can pose challenges for the more than 35 million Americans who suffer from allergies. With predictions of an intensified allergy season this year, experts at Northwestern Memorial Hospital offer suggestions for helping allergy sufferers find relief.
“At their worst, allergies can have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life,” says Anju Peters, MD, an allergist at Northwestern Memorial. “Many patients complain of fatigue, headaches and worsening of chronic conditions such as asthma when seasonal allergies strike. Their symptoms can also lead to sleep loss and less productivity at work and school.”
What causes seasonal allergies?
The long-awaited warmer weather brings about a cycle of plant pollen and molds that can quickly permeate the air and spread for miles. While the type and quantity of pollen varies by region, common culprits are trees, grass and ragweed, which pollinate from March through September and can send many people’s immune systems into overdrive with the release of histamine that can trigger eye, nose and sinus inflammation.
The most common symptoms include itchy or watery eyes, runny nose, postnasal drip, congestion and sneezing. While many may consider such symptoms to be merely bothersome, they can progress to a state of misery for others.
While you certainly can’t control the air, there are steps you can take to lessen the likelihood that you’ll suffer from allergy symptoms. Dr. Peters recommends the following approaches for identifying triggers and avoiding seasonal allergy attacks.
- Visit your doctor – The first step to prevention is determining what type of pollen you’re allergic to. Make an appointment with an allergist to evaluate your symptoms. During the visit, he or she may perform an allergy skin test, in which allergens, such as grass pollen, are injected into the outermost layer of the skin. Allergy is identified if redness or swelling develops within 15 to 20 minutes at the site of an allergen injection. Similarly, a blood test can measure levels of antibodies that your body makes in response to certain allergens.
- Prepare for the outdoors – Once you know what triggers your allergies, stay on top of the pollen and mold counts and air quality provided in weather forecasts to determine and plan your time outdoors. A low pollen reading is 0 to 30, moderate is 31 to 60, high is 61 to 120 and extremely high is anything over 121. Pollen is typically highest during the late morning and early afternoon periods, and can rise with high humidity levels. It’s always a good idea to wear sunglasses and hats when outside to help block pollen.
- Safeguard the indoors – Keep windows and doors shut when pollen counts peak, and be sure to change air filters in your home often. Regular dusting and vacuuming can also help, along with air purifiers, which remove airborne allergens. Since pollens are known to stick to fabric, Dr. Peters also recommends removing clothing that’s been worn outside when you get home and taking a shower to rinse allergens from your body. Also, be sure to wash clothes and bedding often.
When allergy symptoms do hit, a variety of over-the-counter products such as antihistamines, decongestants and nasal sprays can provide relief. While these medications are designed to help alleviate symptoms, doctors caution that some products can cause side effects and should thus not be used long-term.
“If overused, decongestant nasal sprays can actually lose their effectiveness and lead to rebound congestion,” says Dr. Peters. “Likewise, overuse of oral decongestants can bring about certain health concerns. Be sure to talk with your physician about appropriate use of over-the-counter decongestant products, especially if you have a pre-existing health condition.”
Other products that can help with allergy symptoms are antihistamine eye drops for itchy, watery eyes and throat lozenges for soothing a sore throat due to postnasal drip. If you find that such over-the-counter remedies still don’t bring relief, speak with your doctor, who may prescribe anti-inflammatory medication such as nasal steroids, which are safe to use on a long-term basis. For those patients with severe allergies, immunotherapy treatments such as allergy shots, which work to reduce sensitivity to allergens, may be an option for providing long-term relief.
“Allergies are a fact of life, but they are manageable,” says Dr. Peters. “Seek ways to control your allergies so that you can enjoy the spring and summer seasons.”