Stop Seasonal Allergies Before They StartLast updated: Apr 25, 2016
It may have been a cold start to the season, but there is no doubt spring is finally here. While green leaves and budding flowers mark warm weather, outdoor activities, and extra daylight—unfortunately, for many, they also mean allergy season is in full bloom.
If you are among the one in five Americans who suffer from seasonal allergies you know that the symptoms—congestion, sneezing, watery eyes, itchy throat, coughing, and sometimes wheezing—can put a damper on your quality of life. That is why physicians at Summit Medical Group’s Allergy and Immunology Department work with patients to help alleviate reactions to common allergens, including pollen, dust, mold, pets, and foods. In New Jersey, spring is a common time for allergies because pollen is being released into the air to fertilize other trees and plants.
"Allergies are nothing to sneeze at,” says Gary Pien, MD, PhD, an allergist and immunologist at Summit Medical Group. In the United States alone, there are over two million missed school days and over three million missed work days due to allergies.”
Allergies occur when your immune system believes an otherwise harmless substance like tree pollen is harmful and attacks it. When this happens the immune system goes into overdrive and triggers the release of noxious chemicals including histamines, which then cause symptoms like sneezing and coughing.
Start Allergy Treatment Early
When winter weather creeps into late March, allergy season may be delayed a few weeks. But Dr. Pien advises patients to start their medication on March 1st even if there is still snow on the ground.
“People with a history of seasonal allergies need to be ahead of the curve with their allergy regimen,” explains Dr. Pien. “If you wait for symptoms to start you will be playing catch up and it will be harder to get them under control.”
He also recommends that patients continue to take their medication regularly throughout the season even if they start to feel better. Tree pollen—the most common spring allergen—begins to dissipate by June, while grass pollen often lasts until July. Ragweed allergies, which occur in the fall, usually appear from August until the end of October. Many people with seasonal allergies have reactions to both spring and fall foliage.
Have you ever wondered if that lingering stuffy nose or tickle cough is an allergic reaction? The biggest clue to recognizing allergens, Dr. Pien says, is to look for patterns.
“If you have the same symptom that reoccurs every season, or in the same environment—a dusty basement or near a hairy dog—you would probably benefit from allergy testing,” says Dr. Pien. “Colds and infections, which can cause similar symptoms, are usually accompanied by a fever, aches, and sometimes a sore throat. Colds also tend to clear up within a few days, whereas allergy symptoms tend to persist throughout the season.”
Dr. Pien’s first step when diagnosing an allergy is to take a complete medical history and perform a physical exam. If he suspects a patient is allergic, he will order a blood or skin test, which screens for dozens of potential allergens. During a skin test, various allergens are pricked onto the skin. If the patient has an allergy, they will have a reaction at the test site—most commonly, a red itchy bump that looks like a hive will appear.
Treating Seasonal Allergies
The first important step in alleviating allergies is to avoid the trigger.
“If you are allergic to pollen, limit your time outdoors, and keep the windows closed. When you come inside for the day, change your clothes and take a shower,” says Dr. Pien. This is particularly important if the pollen count is high. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology has information on pollen counts by location.
“Similarly, if you suffer from a pet allergy the best option is to avoid them or remove them from the home,” he adds. “With dust mites, try to clean the home once or twice a week, use an allergy proof pillowcase, and limit stuffed animals in your child’s bed.”
Many patients also need medication. The most common symptom of allergies is nasal congestion, also known as hay fever. A class of drugs called antihistamines can relieve sneezing and sniffling. Nasal sprays can help with nasal congestion. Most of these treatments are available over-the-counter at the drug store. Prescription therapies are also available, particularly when over-the-counter medications fail to provide relief.
People who suffer from asthma may need an inhaler to control wheezing and shortness of breath. Allergy eye drops also help alleviate itchy, watery eyes.
Some patients with severe allergies may need a more powerful medication called immunotherapy. Administered as an allergy shot each month, this treatment attempts to get the body used to the allergen and retrain the immune system not to overreact.
Who Gets Allergies?
Seasonal allergies occur in all age groups and can appear as early as two years old. As children get older, they are more likely to develop seasonal allergies. Allergies also tend to improve later in life, just in time to enjoy retirement.
Some individuals are genetically more prone to develop allergies. Dr. Pien says these patients usually have other ailments, including asthma or skin conditions like eczema or atopic dermatitis. People with food allergies are also more susceptible to developing seasonal allergies.
Physicians at Summit Medical Group’s Allergy and Immunology Department
partner with patients to help alleviate reactions to common allergens,
including pollen, dust, mold, pets, and foods.