Breathing is basic. Most of the time we take it for granted. But if your nose is congested and your sinuses are stopped up, you are miserable. For one thing, your head feels as if it’s full of cotton. Studies have found that people suffering from allergies frequently experience sleep difficulties, fatigue, poor concentration, drowsiness, irritability, delayed reaction times, memory problems, and cognitive impairment.19 When you are in the middle of an allergy attack it is hard to drive safely even if you are not sneezing. Making decisions or operating other kinds of machinery can also be problematic.
Paradoxically, although antihistamines are the mainstay of allergy treatment, they can also cause drowsiness, delayed reaction times, sedation, and cognitive impairment. Even the so-called second-generation nonsedating antihistamines that are so heavily advertised to consumers may not be as benign as drug companies would have you believe.20 When given in doses that are adequate to relieve symptoms, some of these nonsedating antihistamines may also make people drowsy and impair performance.
Research has shown that driving skills are affected with both the older and the newer antihistamines. A massive study conducted for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration discovered that driving while drowsy–no matter what the cause–increased the risk of a crash or near crash by four to six times.
Physicians often think of allergies as more of a nuisance than a life-threatening condition. But we now realize that impairment poses huge risks if people are driving. And allergy symptoms don’t just occur in the spring and fall, when pollen is in the air. Nowadays many folks are congested all year long. At last count, 50 million people are sensitive to things like dust mites, cat dander, cockroaches, mold spores, and pollens from oak, elm, and maple trees as well as ragweed and rye, blue, and Bermuda grasses.24 Symptoms include nasal stuffiness, runny nose, itching, sneezing, and coughing. Chronic sinusitis, which may develop as a consequence of allergies, affects more than 30 million people. And asthma, which can be life threatening, often has an allergic and inflammatory component.
What is so scary about these statistics is that they keep going up. No one knows why, but it appears that more people are suffering than ever before.
Allergies don’t get the respect they deserve. When you complain about your congestion, most friends and family members will barely sympathize. But allergies can slow you down and make you dangerous behind the wheel. Finding the right treatment to ease your symptoms without causing worse problems is a challenge. Combining several options, including environmental control, may be the most effective solution for solving this common problem.
- Use a HEPA-type air filter and a dehumidifier to remove allergens from the air you breathe and make the environment inhospitable for the three Ms of allergy–mold, mildew, and mites.
- Get a high-quality vacuum cleaner that won’t spew dust and dirt back into the air. Miele models rank high on our list.
- Wash your nasal passages with saline. A neti pot will help.
- Consider an herbal approach such as stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) or butterbur (Petasites hybridus). Men with prostate enlargement may find nettles especially helpful since some OTC allergy medicines may make this condition worse.
- The natural products quercetin and bromelain may help stabilize mast cells and prevent histamine release.
- Cromolyn (NasalCrom) is an OTC remedy that also stabilizes mast cells. It should be used preventively before exposure to allergens occurs. Cromolyn does not cause drowsiness.
- Oral antihistamines can control symptoms, but they may also make you dangerous on the highways. Even nonsedating products may interfere with driving ability. Generic loratadine (Claritin) is now available without a prescription.
- Among prescription allergy medicines, steroid nasal sprays offer the most effective symptom relief with a minimum of side effects. The cost is significant, since they are available only by prescription. One generic variety (flunisolide) is less expensive than brand-name products like Flonase and Rhinocort AQ.
- Pseudoephedrine can be surprisingly effective at controlling allergy symptoms. Beware of side effects such as insomnia, nervousness, high blood pressure, and irregular heart rhythms.