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Spring is here! It’s time for sunshine, warmer temperatures, birds chirping, outdoor happy hour, flowers blooming, jogging in the park…and seasonal allergies.
Allergies affect almost 30 million people and often seems like everyone is allergic to something — but if you’re feeling sub-par this time of year, it’s important to start by figuring out if seasonal allergies are really the culprit of your symptoms. The duration and timing of your symptoms is an important clue. If you have a fever and swollen lymph nodes, or symptoms that last only a few days, that’s probably not a sign of allergies. But, if you say to yourself, “Wow, every April it seems like I always get a ‘cold’ for about three weeks!” and you’re experiencing an extended period of nasal congestion, throat clearing, stuffiness, and sinus pressure, then that is likely allergy-related.
If you are not sure whether you have allergies, see an allergy specialist, but remember — an allergy test is only as good as the history that accompanies it. If your allergy test indicates that you’re allergic to cats, but you have absolutely no symptoms around cats, then guess what? That’s a false positive test! (But if you hate cats, then you’ll still probably use that as an excuse as to why you can’t be around them. We get it.) However, if you have really bad symptoms around cats and your test is positive, that confirms the diagnosis. A seasoned (no pun intended) allergist can help you figure out what is really an allergy trigger for you and what is just background noise. Not a fan of going to the doctor? You can always do an online consultation with me!
Most people think that allergies are just a nuisance, but I have some important news for you. Uncontrolled allergy symptoms, even something like a mild hay fever, can lead to chronic inflammation and mucus build-up in your sinuses and nasal passages, which is a magnet for bacteria and viruses. By not treating your allergy symptoms in the long-term, you are setting yourself up for infection. Uncontrolled allergies can also lead to lost time and productivity at work, asthma, sleep problems (including sleep apnea), headaches, fatigue, learning impairment, decreased cognitive functioning and poor overall quality of life. Just like high blood pressure or diabetes are diseases that can lead to long-term damage when left untreated, uncontrolled allergic rhinitis can too.
We normally think of pollen as the villain of seasonal allergies, but it isn’t always the culprit, especially for those of us with year-round symptoms. Dust and particulate matter can get stuck in air conditioning filters — especially in old units that haven’t been turned on in a while — so make sure you clean out those A/C filters ASAP. Even if you don’t have dust mite allergy, this particulate matter can be very irritating to the lungs and nasal passages and trigger allergy and asthma attacks. Some people with asthma or nasal/sinus issues are very sensitive to changes in temperature and that alone can trigger their symptoms. A temperature of 68-72 degrees tends to be the sweet spot. It’s not only the optimal temperature for sleeping and productivity, but it also minimizes allergy and asthma symptoms.
I’m often asked whether or not congestion and itchy eyes can be caused by food allergies. Typically, food does not cause these types of symptoms (with the exception of spicy foods, which can cause a runny nose). However, there is something called pollen-food allergy syndrome (PFS) — also referred to as oral allergy syndrome (OAS) — that can occur in people who are highly allergic to pollen. Typically, people with PFS experience an itchy mouth and throat from the ingestion of fresh fruits like apples, peaches, and cherries, despite being able to tolerate the cooked form of the food. This is because the protein found in these fresh fruits closely resembles tree pollen, which can trigger the oral response. Once the food is cooked or processed, the protein inside of it becomes denatured, breaking down in a way that no longer looks like tree pollen to the body, so the body stops reacting to it as foreign. Early studies have shown that getting allergy shots may help with this, so if you’ve experienced symptoms like these, that is probably your best bet if you want to eat those foods in the future.
How can you be prepared for seasonal allergies? Identify your triggers and get insight from a medical professional. Meet with an allergist who will do a thorough environmental and occupational history, and a full assessment of your symptoms. If you can, work with an allergy specialist who can do a virtual visit with you to take a video tour of your home to help you identify problem areas that could be leading to allergy triggers (that’s my speciality — the virtual allergy visit). Have targeted allergy testing, and make sure your doctor doesn’t just test you for “everything”, because you will probably just end up confused without a clear understanding of the cause of your allergies. Also, start taking medicines for seasonal allergies early! For all of you tree-pollen-allergic patients out there, I recommend starting now, even if you’re not suffering already — don’t wait to develop symptoms.
Remember that prevention is key! If seasonal allergies are getting the best of you, keep your windows closed and the air conditioning (with a clean filter!) on. Wash your body, hair AND your clothes as soon as you get back home from being outside. Don’t wear your shoes around the house — that way you can avoid tracking potent airborne pollen into the home. And lastly, if you have eye symptoms, this is one of my favorite tips: Wash your eyelids with a cotton swab and baby shampoo every morning and night to get rid of the pollen that might get stuck in your lids. Finally, to any of you contact lens wearers — it’s time to go get a pair of stylish glasses instead, because pollen loves to stick to lenses!