When spring produces blooming, it also may set off reactions to pollens in the air, called seasonal allergic rhinitis and commonly known as hay fever. Rhinitis is an inflammation of the lining membrane of the nose, whereas allergy is an abnormal response by your immune system to a substance that is normally not harmful.
There are many kinds of allergies, and allergens (also called triggers) are substances that cause allergies. When these allergens enter a sensitive person’s body, they are mistaken as enemies; antibodies proceed to attack them, and a chemical called histamine is released. The most common allergens are plant pollen and wood products, animal dander (especially cat dander), mold, dust and dust mites, some foods and drugs, latex and insects such as bees and wasps. Molds are microscopic fungi, and are even more abundant than pollen. They are most common during the wettest months, and in the spring the breezes spread their spores widely.
Why do some people develop allergies? It’s not known for sure, although they tend to run in families. In allergic rhinitis, the nose becomes inflamed and swollen, which in turn can cause a variety of symptoms. Some of these signs are drippy or stuffy nasal passages, watery or puffy eyes or dark circles under the eyes, plugged ears, sneezing, eye, nose, throat or mouth itching, sinus headaches, and coughing or wheezing.
There are some techniques to avoid allergies in susceptible people. Chlorine bleach can get rid of many of the molds that grow in damp areas such as kitchens, basements, bathrooms, and garages. Keeping windows and doors closed when pollen counts are high, and using air conditioners in the car and the home help clean the air. Encase pillows and mattresses in dust-proof coverings (especially if you go to sleep at night with a clear nose and awaken in the morning with stuffiness).
Dust mites are everywhere. Mostly inhabiting the bedroom, they also live in carpeting and upholstered furniture. Wash bedding frequently in hot water to cut down on dust mites, and wash your hair before going to bed during the pollen season. Clean and vacuum often to minimize dust accumulation, and use dehumidifiers to reduce mold production. Use a clothes dryer, as laundry hung outdoors collects pollen and molds, especially on dry, windy days. Don’t rake leaves or cut the grass, and if you must, wear a pollen mask. Wash your hands after petting any animal; this is especially important for children. Taking steps to aggressively control dust mites may reduce the occurrence of this type of mite allergy in children.
The principal drugs used to help relieve or prevent allergy symptoms are:
Antihistamines available both over-the-counter and by prescription. Typically used when there is stuffy or runny nose accompanied by sneezing and itchy eyes or throat. The newer antihistamines are non-drowsy formulations, although all antihistamines have the potential for causing tiredness. Most of the newer drugs of this type are long acting, so are taken only once daily, the effect lasting for 24 hours. Antihistamines also relieve other allergy symptoms unrelated to rhinitis, including hives and some rashes. However, if you have bacterial rhinitis or sinusitis, antihistamines can make matters worse. Some antihistamines that are sold without prescription are Loratidine (generic for Claritin), Cetirizine (for Zyrtec), Fexofenadine (for Allegra), and diphenhydramine (for Benadryl). I like to use diphenhydramine only for “bites” or rashes if the physician advises it, as it has a side effect of making one drowsy. It would be a good idea to check with your health care provider when and if you need one of these drugs.
Decongestants relieve swelling and congestion in the nose, so breathing is easier. They should only be used for short periods, as they can be habit forming, and can complicate the situation in the long run. I do not recommend these drugs very often, as they have limited effectiveness and can have undesirable side effects.
Nasal sprays available over-the-counter and by prescription, both for preventing and treating allergies, relieving mild congestion. Saline drops and sprays—no side effects (essentially salt water), loosen mucus and prevent crusting; mild enough for children.
Eye drops specifically for allergies, both on prescription and over the counter. I advise not to use these unless you check with your health care provider. Singulair is a preventive prescription drug used in asthma to decrease symptoms and number of acute attacks; it is also used to help prevent the symptoms of seasonal allergies. If you take prescription drugs, check with your physician or pharmacist before using over the counter drugs, as they may cause a duplication of therapy, or react with each other. Always read the package insert or label carefully and follow instructions.
Alcohol stimulates mucus production and dilates blood vessels, worsening runny nose and nasal congestion, whereas smoking irritates the eyes and respiratory system, making allergy symptoms worse.
Although it is not possible to completely prevent allergies and asthma in young children with the knowledge we currently have, genetic and cellular engineering promise hope for such avoidance in the future. In the meantime, parents can make the recommended environmental changes and use the preventive strategies discussed to help reduce or delay the occurrence of these problems in their children.