Spring Is Here, Gesundheit

Allergies can be particularly tough on sufferers this time of year

FRIDAY, May 21, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Allergies can be a year-round curse. Just ask any of the 50 million Americans who struggle with them.

And the warm, sunny days of spring pose a particular problem for those who suffer from allergic rhinitis -- seasonal allergies caused by pollen in the air.

With May designated Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month, health officials are spreading the word about seasonal allergies, which affect 32 million Americans, and what people can do to protect themselves.

Meet Dave Williams, whose twin infant daughters try their best to keep him from doing something about his allergies.

Williams, a stay-at-home dad from Silver Springs, Md., is primarily allergic to dust, but he's also vulnerable to ragweed and pollen. Making matters worse, his little girls, 11 months old, have decided they're afraid of the vacuum cleaner.

"I try to vacuum a lot -- and dust," Williams, 31, said. "I'll start in the guest room, trying to get as much done as I can. The girls will get curious and crawl in. Once they see the vacuum, it triggers something in them and the tears come."

Williams has suffered from allergies as long as he can remember. His symptoms: lots of sneezing and a runny nose. Venturing outside is tough for him most of the year.

Scientists believe allergies are genetic traits inherited from your parents, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Exposure to allergens when your body's defense is weakened, like after being sick, may also contribute to the development of allergies.

"There is no cure," said foundation spokesman Mike Tringale. "You will live with your allergies for the rest of your life."

An allergic reaction occurs when your body's immune system overreacts to trace amounts of an allergen that has entered through the nose or mouth. The immune system floods the body with histamine, a chemical that causes what Tringale calls an "allergic cascade" of symptoms.

All allergy sufferers exhibit pretty much the same symptoms -- sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes and itchy skin.

But the intensity of your symptoms can vary greatly, depending on what you're allergic to, said Dr. Derek Johnson, an allergist for the Temple University Children's Medical Center in Philadelphia.

The spring allergy season can be incredibly intense for sufferers, as trees ramp up their production of pollen, Johnson said.

By contrast, the fall allergy season isn't quite as tough but tends to last longer, Johnson said. Weeds produce most of the pollen during this season, and they don't stop until the onset of winter.

The fall allergy season may cause more widespread misery, Tringale added. That's due to one culprit -- ragweed.

Three of every four people who suffer seasonal allergies are primarily allergic to ragweed, Tringale said: "That's the prime offending allergen in the fall."

To treat your allergies, doctors say you first need to zero in on what they are. Allergists can accomplish this through a skin test or blood test, and there's even a home testing kit now on the market, Tringale said.

Once you know what ails you, the best thing you can do is try to avoid it.

For instance, springtime pollen counts are higher in the morning, so Johnson suggested sufferers make their plans accordingly. "If people are into outdoor activities, avoid the morning hours," he said. "Go jogging later in the day."

Another good idea is to shower and change and then clean your clothes whenever coming inside from an outdoor activity. This will prevent pollen that's clinging to your clothes or skin from coming loose inside your home, he said.

If you're suffering symptoms, there are a wide range of medications now available. Antihistamines are a traditional treatment, but many people complain of drowsiness. Newer drugs such as Claritin and Alavert tackle the symptoms just as well and don't make you sleepy, Tringale said.

People with severe seasonal allergies might want to consider undergoing a series of allergy shots, Johnson said. The downside: It can take two to five years of weekly shots before you will start to see some positive response, he said.

Williams relies on non-drowsy medications to help him stay sharp and keep track of his daughters. It's easier than ever now that the drugs are available over-the-counter.

"It's nice to go out and watch the flowers bloom, but I have to be prepared," he said. "I have medicine on hand for when the symptoms arise."

More information

To learn more about all available treatments for allergies, visit The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Or you can check with the National Library of Medicine.

SOURCES: Derek Johnson, M.D., allergist, Temple University Children's Medical Center, Philadelphia; Mike Tringale, spokesman, Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, Washington, D.C.; Dave Williams, Silver Springs, Md.
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