Spring will soon be in the air, and with blooming plants comes an increase in allergies and asthma, though some sufferers can experience symptoms year-round.
“These are serious diseases and that’s nothing to sneeze at,” says Luz Fonacier, MD, Allergy Section Head at NYU Winthrop Hospital. “Misdiagnosis and inappropriate treatment can be dangerous, and allergies can lead to sinus infections, disrupt sleep, and affect the ability to learn at school or be productive at work.”
Seasonal allergies are usually caused by pollens from grass, trees, weeds and ragweed, while perennial allergies are frequently due to dust mite, molds, cockroach and animal dander. Here in the Northeast, we generally have three pollen seasons: trees typically pollinate in early spring, grasses in the summer, and weeds and ragweed in the fall. Allergic reactions will be highest depending on which of these someone might be most sensitive to. However, overlap of pollination and multiple sensitivities or allergies are common.
Of interest, Dr. Fonacier notes that more than two-thirds of spring allergy sufferers actually have year-round symptoms, and as many as 75 to 85 percent of asthma patients also have allergies. Allergic responses in the lungs can lead to symptoms including coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.
Dr. Fonacier also points out that if you’ve never had allergies before, you’re not immune. “Anyone can develop an allergy later in life. In those cases, scientists believe that the allergy may have always existed, with the dormant allergy triggered by exposure to a new allergen.” If symptoms – such as itchy eyes and nose as well as sneezing – are persistent and last more than two weeks, it is likely due to allergies rather than just the common cold.
Tips from Dr. Fonacier to avoid allergy triggers
- Monitor pollen and mold counts, which media usually reports during allergy seasons.
- Keep windows and doors closed at home and in the car during allergy season.
- Use air conditioning, which keeps the pollen out and cools and humidifies the air.
- Stay inside during the midday and afternoon hours when pollen counts are highest.
- Take a shower, wash hair and change clothing after working or playing outdoors.
- Avoid mowing lawns or raking leaves, which stirs up pollen and molds.
- If symptoms are severe, wear a mask for outdoor chores.
- Avoid hanging sheets or clothes outside to dry.
- Try to stay indoors when there’s dry, windy weather as wind spreads pollen and mold.
There are many treatments available to ease symptoms, including nasal sprays, oral medications, and allergy desensitization (also called immunotherapy) by shots or by mouth. For asthma, there are inhalers, pills, allergy desensitization and biologics.
“Treat early,” adds Dr. Fonacier. “It’s best to stay ahead of the itching, sneezing, and wheezing. If you use nasal or oral antihistamines, steroids, or eye drops for seasonal allergies, don't wait until your symptoms are unbearable to start treatment.”
Patients that haven’t been diagnosed with seasonal allergies by a board-certified allergist, however, should be cautious of over-the-counter medications, because they can cause sleep disturbances and mental impairment.
Dr. Fonacier also advises against taking nasal decongestants for more than a week. “They have a rebound effect. You keep needing more and more if you take them long-term. And people with high blood pressure or heart disease should avoid oral decongestants.”
There are also relatively new medications for allergies, including new combination antihistamine/corticosteroid nose sprays, as well as new delivery systems for allergy nose sprays including drier nose sprays, among other advancements. There are also biologics for asthma.
The Division of Rheumatology, Allergy & Immunology at NYU Winthrop has highly experienced allergists who, with a good history, examination, skin testing or blood test, can properly diagnose allergies. For more information, call 1-866-WINTHROP.