Allergy & Air on May 15, 2015 0 Comments Some are round. Some are square. Some are triangular. And some are even shaped like Mickey Mouse ears. These are the many shapes of pollen, that ubiquitous springtime invader that frequently travels the length of three football fields—or much further!— on the wind and the backs of insects. In fact, pollen has been found more than one thousand miles from its source. Somehow, it always finds you! If seasonal allergies just involved a little sniffling and sneezing, we might grab a box of tissues and not miss a beat of our daily lives. But springtime allergies tighten a grip on your freedom just when you want to be outdoors and physically active. They sap you of energy and stamina. Springtime allergies are worse than a cold. A cold runs its course in seven days. But seasonal allergies can last for months, making their “springtime” tag something of a misnomer. Experts say it’s only going to get worse and this summer is one for the books! What’s Cooking Up This Worsening Pollen Brew? Weather Channel experts highlight these factors as producing a harsher pollen season: Climate change Rising temperatures Wet winter The priming effect City planning decisions The “priming effect” always gets lots of attention in social media, but not so much in terms of pollen reactions. The priming effect is when outdoor temperatures change rapidly in a relatively short period of time (50 degrees one day and 90 degrees the next). The body’s immune system revs up for these temperature changes; when they are frequent, the immune system can become hypersensitive to the pollen produced. City planners unintentionally cause more pollen if they plant more male trees in parks and green spaces. Often they do this because male trees create less mess than female trees, which drop more seeds. More male trees result in more pollen, according to Weather Channel experts. To keep pollen to a minimum, it is better to plant male and female trees equally. Make Allergy Tracker and Pollen Forecast Part of Your Morning Ritual The best way to manage your reactions to seasonal allergies is to stay abreast of pollen counts. But first you have to know your own sensitivities, something you can discover through a skin test (there are three types) or a blood test done by an allergist. Once you know which kinds of tree pollen, as well as grass and weed pollen, affect you, you’re ready to monitor daily pollen levels, which vary by region, time of day and weather conditions, such as dampness and wind. For this, the Weather Channel offers two tools that should become part of your daily ritual, along with morning coffee and checking the news headlines. First is the Allergy Tracker, which provides a pollen index and breathing index for the current day and the next day. It also provides a U.S. map showing the most active pollens nationwide. Next, the Pollen Forecast provides more detail and a three-day forecast for tree, grass and weed pollen, as well as mold. Again, a U.S. map shows you areas to steer clear of. If you live in an especially hard-hit area and need to be outdoors, wearing a face mask is not out of the question. In purchasing a face mask, make sure it is rated well for filtering out dust and particulate matter. It should be lightweight, not too bulky and fit snuggly to your face. Some face masks have Velcro fasteners to ensure a snug fit. Pollen forecasts can also help you plan outdoor gatherings and vacations when pollen counts are at a low ebb. Indoor Air-Quality Devices While it may not be the best answer, staying indoors offers more protection from springtime allergies than just walls and windows. Air conditioners and air purifiers are among the devices that can help ease breathing and allergic reactions. With either central air or room air conditioners, make sure your filters and ducts are clean or you will just be recycling particles back into the living space. When buying an air purifier, look for one with a HEPA filter. HEPA stands for “High Efficiency Particulate Air” or “High Efficiency Particulate Arrestance,” and it means that the device has been certified to meet current federal standards for particulate matter (what people with allergies react to). Air purifiers with HEPA filters force air through a fine mesh, trapping airborne particles. However, allergies are not just triggered by airborne particles, so you’ll need to make sure to keep flooring, window coverings and bedding especially clean. Keeping home humidity at 50 percent is also advised for allergy sufferers. A device called a hygrometer will give you the precise reading of your home’s humidity. Humidifiers and vaporizers can help you achieve the optimal reading, but make sure to use these devices properly to guard against the creation of mold, which can worsen allergic reactions. Fighting Seasonal Allergies with Medication and Immunotherapy There are three classes of medications most often used for seasonal allergies. All can be effective, but they also may produce side effects, and limiting their use may be recommended. These medications are inhaled corticosteroids, intranasal and oral antihistamines, and nasal and oral decongestants. Antihistamines and decongestants typically are available over the counter, while inhaled corticosteroids require a prescription. Inhaled Corticosteroids A study, the “Drug Class Review: Nasal Corticosteroids” compared the safety and effectiveness of eight popular drugs, including the trade names Flonase, Rhinocort Aqua, Beconase AQ and Nasonex. Nasonex was found superior to others in reducing allergy symptoms before and during the peak season, but this medication also was associated with more headaches in users. For year-round allergies, adult users saw similar positive results with Beconase AQ, Rhinocort Aqua, Flonase and Nasonex; Beconase AQ, Flonase and Nasonex performed well for children in addressing both seasonal and year-round allergies. In adults, possible side effects can range from nasal irritation and nose bleeds to increasing the risk of cataracts, although the evidence for the latter effect was called “weak”. In children, possible side effects include retarding growth and a type of cataract. Antihistamines Antihistamines are available both over the counter and by prescription. They can have a wide range of side effects, the most well-known of which is making you drowsy. Other possible side effects are dizziness, nausea, dry mouth, blurred vision and confusion. They can lose their effectiveness if taken for a few months at a time. Intranasal antihistamines often are more effective than oral antihistamines in controlling congestion. When a person is sensitive to an allergen (like pollen) and comes into contact with it, the body releases histamine, which leads to symptoms like swelling of nasal passages, sneezing and itchy eyes. Antihistamines compete with histamines to attach to receptor cells in the body to prevent histamines from causing allergic reactions. Decongestants Decongestants help dry up excess fluid in your nasal passages and may be taken in several forms: pills, liquid or nasal spray. Decongestants should only be taken for a few days. If used more than a week, a disorder called rhinitis medicamentosa is possible. This basically means that each time the effect of the medication wears off and the congestion comes back, it will be worse than the previous time. In addition, oral decongestants are known to have a variety of side effects, such as increasing blood pressure and nervousness. Sometimes they cause heart palpitations. Individuals with high blood pressure, glaucoma or heart conditions should consult with their doctor before taking a decongestant. Immunotherapy The scientific literature shows that immunotherapy (“allergy shots”) are highly effective in relieving allergic symptoms and decreasing the need for other allergy medications in the first year. Immunotherapy is not immediate, however; it’s not even effective within 24 to 48 hours, as many of the over-the-counter allergy medicines. Immunotherapy basically delivers the allergen to your body in tiny amounts under your skin. This helps your immune system grow accustomed to the allergen and not overreact when it comes in contact with it in the natural environment. Today, if allergy shots are begun in January, chances are good that your allergy symptoms will be significantly diminished in March or April. This may seem like a long time to wait, but when immunotherapy was first introduced, this adjustment period could take years. A more aggressive approach, called “clustering,” can shorten the wait time to four to five weeks. Lifestyle Changes and Alternative Medicine Approaches to Allergy Relief One of the most exciting herbal treatments for seasonal allergies is butterbur (Petasites hybridus), which was shown to relieve symptoms in 90 percent of adults who took two butterbur tablets daily for two weeks. Another study published in the British Medical Journal showed that butterbur, four times daily, was as effective as a popular antihistamine in controlling hay fever symptoms. Essential oils also have promise as allergy “medicine”. In a test of 20 different essential oils, lemongrass oil had the strongest anti-allergy, anti-inflammatory effects. One popular alternative treatment you can do at home to wash allergens from your nasal passages is using a traditional neti pot with saline solution. Beyond these natural alternatives, adopting the simple habits listed below will reduce the effect of seasonal allergies for you or allergy sufferers in your household: Wear sunglasses to keep pollen out of your eyes Wash your hair at night so you don’t take pollen trapped in your hair to bed with you Don’t keep plants indoors Eat organic fruits and vegetables to protect against pesticide residues After gardening or mowing, change clothes outdoors before coming inside Final Note Suffering does not have to be part of your life when it comes to allergies. Learn your sensitivities, use available tools to track pollen counts and get a jump on allergy season with conventional and alternative medications and good lifestyle habits.