A mild winter and an early spring leads to buds and blooms and seasonal allergies.
If you’re sneezing, your nose is running, your eyes are itchy and watery and you’re feeling out of sorts, pollen may be your poison.
Pollen is the microscopic round grain that plants use to reproduce, and they are releasing their pollen by the billions right now.
“We usually think of seasonal allergies as a nuisance like hay fever or allergic rhinitis, but allergies can become more serious if they trigger asthma or eczema,” said Meera Gupta, a board-certified allergist at the University of Texas Medical Branch.
The good news is that most allergy symptoms can be prevented or relieved by taking medications such as antihistamines or intranasal steroid sprays. Many of these were once prescription-only medications but are now sold over the counter.
“I have mild allergic rhinitis, more in the fall than the spring, and there’s no simple way to prevent it,” Gupta said. “Still, symptoms can be mitigated with regular medication and nasal steroids.”
For best results, Gupta recommends you talk with your primary care physician.
“Your doctor can take a good history, evaluate your symptoms, do a physical exam and start you on a treatment plan that is more likely to be effective,” she said.
“If you’re using a nasal spray, it helps to start it at least two weeks before pollens become abundant.”
If you procrastinated and now find we are in the peak of the pollen season, you can still get relief by taking the right medication as directed — the nose spray may take up to two weeks to be effective — and by avoiding the outside world when the pollen counts are highest.
Some medications can be used to reduce immediate symptoms but those that prevent the symptoms must be taken or sprayed daily to be effective.
If you are sneezing and wheezing you are not alone. About 50 million people in the United States are affected by nasal allergies, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
The foundation reports that allergic disease, including asthma, is the fifth leading chronic disease in our country for all ages, and the third most common chronic disease in children.
So why do our bodies react to seasonal pollens like it’s the invasion of the body snatchers?
Scientists know what causes allergies but why the body reacts as it does is still a mystery, Gupta said.
“Some people have a tendency toward allergic type diseases, so it’s possible that it’s tied to genetics; probably, it’s a combination of environment and genetics,” she said.
Here’s what happens when we have an allergic reaction:
When particles of pollen, pet dander or certain types of food enter our bodies through our mouth or nose, our immune systems sometimes mistake a harmless element for a serious threat.
“This causes our immune system to produce antibodies which activate cells that release histamine and other chemicals, causing the allergic reaction,” Gupta said.
For us, it presents the familiar symptoms in the nose, the lungs, the throat, the sinuses, the ears and on the skin.
How do you know whether those unpleasant symptoms are allergies or just a cold?
“It can be tough to differentiate between a cold virus and allergies,” Gupta said. “The sneezing, congestion and malaise can be the same, but the timing and duration are not.”
“Cold symptoms resolve in seven to 10 days but allergies are more likely to wax and wane throughout the pollen season. If you pay attention to pollen counts, you’ll be able to see a pattern.”
If you’re pretty certain that it’s allergies, and you’ve checked with your physician, what actions can you take to protect yourself in addition to taking allergy medicine and using a nasal sprays?
“Even though the weather is fine, keep your windows closed and use your air conditioner,” she said.
“Stay inside when the pollen counts are highest — here, that’s in the early afternoon and around dusk, and when you come in from the outdoors, you may want to change clothes and take a shower to get rid of the pollen.”
She also recommends wearing glasses or sunshades to keep pollen from getting in your eyes.
Tree pollen will begin to drop in late March, but then grass pollen will rise, she said.
Spring pollen is the current culprit but in the world of allergies, indoor air can be just as problematic with dust mites and pet dander.
“I tell my patients with indoor pets that they should keep them out of the bedroom, if possible, or at least off the bed,” she said.
AC and heater filters should be changed monthly, and the floors should be cleaned at least twice a week with a vacuum with a HEPA filter, she said.
Air purifiers aren’t a recommendation because there’s little evidence they are effective, Gupta said.
At what point should a person consult an allergy specialist?
“When your quality of life is affected, it’s probably time to find out exactly what you are allergic to and an allergist is the specialist who can find out, and then recommend treatment,” she said.