By Judy O’Gorman Alvarez
The days are getting longer. Flowers are blooming. Spring is in the air. And so is the pollen.
If on some days it feels as if everyone around you is sneezing, you could be right. More than 35 million Americans suffer from seasonal allergic rhinitis, more commonly known as hay fever.
According to Jeffrey Hall Dobken, M.D., who specializes in allergy and immunology at Riverview Medical Center, the most common complaints of seasonal discomfort are some form of nasal, sinus or throat irritation. “It’s sort of the cold that doesn’t want to go away,” he says.
Dobken points out that although most people attribute itchy eyes or a runny nose to “an allergy,” it is the allergen – a foreign substance — which is the irritant or cause of their discomfort.
“If you know what it is that is the triggering mechanism – and the cause is different for many people – avoidance of that would alleviate the symptoms.”
Pollen, the tiny grains released from trees, grasses and weeds to fertilize other plants, is the most common irritant in spring. The body’s immune system treats pollen as foreign invaders and releases antibodies that would normally fight organisms such as bacteria and viruses. The antibodies attack the allergens by releasing histamines into the blood. Histamines cause the symptoms of allergies.
“An allergy might be a miscue for your immune system,” says Dobken. “While the body is protecting against the foreign element, it’s generating discomfort,” he says. “It’s a defense that’s gotten off track.”
According to Dobken, each individual is predisposed to allergies by their genetic makeup. “Your genetics load the gun,” he says, “and it’s the environment that pulls the trigger.”
Allergies are not so much treated, as they are controlled and managed, he says. “If you know where the source is coming from, you either don’t expose yourself” or limit yourself to the exposure.
For example, he points out that if your allergy-suffering child will be on the baseball field on a windy day, you can medicate, use nasal sprays and limit the time spent outdoors.
“It won’t be a resolution,” says Dobken, who is a pediatric allergist, but it may cut down the discomfort.
Some 40 percent of U.S. children suffer from seasonal allergies, resulting in more than 2 million lost school days each year.
Natural therapies and over-the-counter medications, such as eye drops, antihistamines, decongestants and nasal sprays can bring temporary relief. For more severe sufferers, prescription nasal sprays and medication or allergy shots could help.
According to Dobken, the No. 1 way to combat allergy symptoms is avoidance. Medication and antihistamines only treat the symptoms.
“If you give a child an antihistamine before going out to play soccer, you’ve only delayed the onset of the symptoms,” he says. The child is still being exposed to the pollen.
“We’re captive to exposure according to the whim of nature,” he says. “It’s cyclical and predictable in that sense.”