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It's been a rough spring so far for allergy sufferers, with tree pollen counts reaching abnormally high levels in the Kansas City area recently.
On the bright side, allergy doctors say there are more quality treatment options available than ever before, including several than can be purchased over the counter.
The spring allergy season usually starts in late February but was delayed this year because of cold weather. Then, when temperatures started warming up, trees released their pollen in a quick burst. While pollen counts are down a bit from earlier in the spring, they are still high enough to keep local allergy doctors busy.
"It's not a good year for allergies in the Midwest," said Keith Sale, an otolaryngologist who treats allergy sufferers at Kansas University Hospital. "I think this year, in the spring at least, it's going to be tough. It's not dry like in past years when we had a drought. If it stays wet, molds will be become more of a problem, there will be more pollination in grasses and weeds."
If your allergies aren't too severe, Lawrence allergist Warren Frick recommends trying over-the-counter antihistamines like Claritin, Zyrtec and Allegra. The steroid nasal spray Nasacore is also now available without a prescription, as are Zaditor antihistamine eye drops.
If over-the-counter remedies don't help, Frick says to see an allergy doctor, who can prescribe stronger drugs and determine whether you would benefit from allergy immunotherapy shots.
Good news appears to be on the way for patients who already use the desensitization injections. A sublingual tablet will be available May 1 for those allergic to grass pollen — Frick, however, doesn't advise using it until next year, as it is supposed to be started three months before the allergy season begins — with versions on the way for tree pollen, ragweed pollen and dust mites.
"The big advance here is that, except for the first dose, patients can take it at home and not have to come into the doctor's office," said Frick, of Asthma & Allergy Associates, noting that about 15 percent of his practice's patients get immunotherapy shots. And, instead of year-round, the sublingual treatment period is only about six months, he added.
Nonpharmaceutical solutions for dealing with allergies include doing outdoor activities later in the day, when pollen counts are generally lower; keeping windows and doors closed; and cleaning yourself (and pets) after coming in from the outdoors, Frick said.
"Classically, the first treatment is, if you're allergic to it stay away from it," said Sale. "The problem with molds and pollen is that, unless you want to live in a bubble, you can't get away from them."
Sale recommended a couple of nonpharmaceutical allergy treatments: flushing your nose with 8 to 10 ounces of saltwater every day, and being aware of cross-reactivity between foods and allergens.
"For instance, if you have a birch allergy and you eat an apple a day to keep the doctor away, you might be making your allergies worse, because the proteins in apples cross-react with the proteins in birch," he said.
Mehdi Khosh uses only natural therapies at his Lawrence practice, Natural Medical Care, prescribing different herbal remedies depending on the person's specific allergy. Beyond that, he says, patients must take care of their overall health.
"They need to sleep well, they need to eat well and they should take some extra vitamin C and eat lots of colorful fruit and dark green vegetables," he said. Foods like red onions, blueberries and strawberries contain quercetin, a natural antihistamine, he added.
Some experts actually believe more people are getting allergies these days, the possible result of a shift in the immune systems of people in industrialized nations from fighting infections to becoming hypersensitive to allergens, Sale said. And Frick added that high allergen levels appear to be the new norm.
"Allergy seasons are getting longer because of climate change, regardless of whether you think it's human induced or not," he said. "The growing season is longer, pollen counts are going up, so the pollen season is longer."