Originally Published: March 24, 2012 9:58 p.m.
Flowers are blooming, birds are singing - and you're feeling itchy, congested and wheezy. If the first signs of spring have you reaching for tissues and antihistamines, you're not alone. According to the American Lung Association, about 26 million Americans suffer from hay fever - technically known as allergic rhinitis - and nearly 15 million Americans suffer from asthma, which can accompany hay fever.
An allergy occurs when the body's immune system has an abnormal reaction to a trigger (the allergen). In the case of hay fever, the immune system reacts to tree, grass or weed pollens. Symptoms include a stuffy, runny nose; watery eyes; sneezing; sinus pressure; and an itchy feeling in the nose or eyes. Hay fever season begins in the spring, when plants begin to pollinate. Generally, tree pollen levels are highest in the early spring, grass pollens in the late spring and early summer and weed pollens from midsummer and through late fall. The duration of symptoms depends on which types of pollen trigger an allergic reaction in you.
Alleviating allergy symptoms
Although there's no cure for hay fever, the following tips may help minimize your symptoms so you can savor the spring, rather than simply suffering through it:
Stay indoors and, if possible, use an air conditioner, especially during the peak pollen times. If you leave the windows open, you can reduce indoor pollen levels by using a HEPA air cleaner.
Don't hang bedding or clothes outside to dry, as the fabric can collect pollen.
If you need to perform outdoor work, such as mowing the lawn, wear a dust mask, available at most hardware stores.
Shower or bathe before bedtime to wash pollen and other allergens off your hair and skin.
Talk to your doctor about taking an allergy medication. A wide variety of allergy medications are available either over-the-counter or with a prescription.
Learn more about allergies
If you suspect you suffer from hay fever or other allergies, talk with your physician about being tested. A simple series of tests can help your physician pinpoint your particular allergens. Then, he or she can explore the most appropriate treatments to relieve your symptoms. Allergy sufferers often find relief after taking steps to prevent or minimize reactions by avoiding the allergen and, if appropriate, using over-the-counter or prescription medications to address specific symptoms. Antihistamines, decongestants and steroid nasal sprays may help with sneezing, wheezing and congestion. Topical treatments, such as cortisone cream or ointment, may help reduce inflammation and rashes, as well as relieve itching. Allergy shots may also provide relief.
Allergic reactions vary and so do the treatments. Fortunately, most people can control their symptoms with a combination of lifestyle changes and medications.
More than just a nuisance
A bee sting, penicillin or peanut oil may be no big deal for most people, but for some individuals, these or other triggers can cause life-threatening allergic reactions called anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock. Anaphylaxis occurs when the body's immune system overreacts to an allergen, causing a drop in blood pressure and difficulty breathing. Symptoms can also include a tingling sensation in the mouth, swelling of the tongue and throat, hives, vomiting, abdominal cramps and unconsciousness. The condition can lead to death if not treated immediately.
It is not unusual for the first encounter with the allergen to produce a mild reaction, but if you are susceptible, subsequent exposures can increase sensitivity to the danger point. Because there is no cure for food allergies, strict avoidance is the only way to prevent a reaction.
Talk with your physician if you suspect you may be at risk for a serious allergic reaction. He or she may recommend that you carry an Epi-Pen®, which can be used to quickly inject a dose of epinephrine to counteract anaphylaxis. You may also want to wear a "medic-alert" bracelet or carry a card in your wallet or purse alerting medical personnel of your allergies.