Archive for Sunday, April 21, 2002

It’s the season for sneezin’

Allergy sufferers turn to medication and shots for relief

April 21, 2002

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If your eyes are itchy, your sinuses are stuffed up or you just can't seem to stop sneezing, it might be easy to identify the culprit.

Allergies.

This is a time of year when the air starts to fill with all kinds of mold and pollen and the waiting rooms of allergy specialists begin to fill with patients who are miserable.

Dr. Ron Weiner has witnessed the trend many times.

"We have patients with asthma and perennial allergies all year round, but there are even more calls to the office during peak allergy season in the spring and the fall and more new patients needing help with their allergies," said Weiner, an asthma and allergy specialist at Asthma, Allergy & Rheumatology, 346 Maine.

As Weiner indicates, allergies exist throughout the year because dust, mold, pollen and pet dander are ever present.

But in March and April, a siege of tree pollen begins, followed in May and June by a wave of grass pollen. And once spring's last freeze is past, the presence of mold outside really kicks in.

That translates to a lot of uncomfortable people, keeping their Kleenex at the ready.

Approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population suffers from inhalant allergies to mold, animal dander, dust and pollen, according to Weiner.

An antibody in the blood, called IgE, senses the presence of allergens in the environment and hooks up to mast cells, which then release chemical mediators like histamine.

Histamine is what causes itchy, watery eyes, sneezing and increased mucus production.

This is where the skills of an allergy specialist come in handy.

"We can figure out what you're allergic to based on the history you present to us. We can also do allergy tests to determine the particular antigen you're allergic to," said Weiner, who serves on the board of the American Lung Association of Kansas.

"If you know what you're allergic to, then there are some things that you can do to avoid it. We don't want to restrict your activities, but we want to do the things in our homes that can help."

Easy steps to take

Weiner recommends that people struggling with allergies this time of year take some steps to reduce allergens in the environment where they live.

For instance, it's a good idea to change the inexpensive, disposable filters in your furnace about once a month. The ones that cost 50 cents at the hardware store are just fine for the job.

If you're allergic to pollens or mold that grow outdoors, don't use an attic fan in your home. That will just suck all the outside air indoors.

The use of vaporizers and dehumidifiers will make things worse if you're allergic to dust mites and indoor mold, which thrive in humidity. For just that reason, a dehumidifier is a good investment because it reduces the presence of these allergens.

Medication, shots

Many allergy sufferers turn to an array of medicines for relief.

There are over-the-counter antihistamines that help with itchy, watery eyes and a runny nose, but they tend to make you feel drowsy.

Prescription antihistamines like Claritin and Allegra cause much less or no drowsiness and are a better choice, Weiner advises. But antihistamines are not the most helpful medicine for allergies.

The best thing is a cortisone nose spray, or nasal steroid, which is available by prescription only and helps reduce nasal and sinus congestion.

The sprays do a better job than nonprescription decongestants such as Sudafed, which can sometimes cause insomnia and do nothing for a runny nose.

Weiner warns people to steer clear of over-the-counter decongestant nose sprays like Afrin, Dristan and Duration.

"They're addictive and can be harmful," he said. "They say right on the bottle not to use them for more than two to three days in a row. And when they wear off, you're more congested that you were before."

For itchy eyes, nonprescription drops like Visine are helpful but shouldn't be used for extended periods. Prescription eye drops are better and can be used every day during allergy season.

If these remedies don't help enough, it's time to consider the next step: allergy shots, also called immunotherapy.

"My allergy to ragweed in the fall used to be world-class. I got allergy shots in the early 1990s to make it improve about 80 percent. Now I'm no longer miserable in my allergy season, and I need much less medication," Weiner said. "That result would be typical of the vast majority of people who get allergy injections."

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