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Allergy Relief Is Complicated

Allergy sufferers get very little sympathy. People with migraines or arthritis endure hardship, but at least everyone recognizes the difficulties of living with such chronic conditions.

The tens of millions who sniffle and sneeze throughout allergy season are mostly ignored. And yet their symptoms also make life miserable.

For example, take our friend George. He is one giant puddle. His nose runs, his eyes water and he can barely think straight. Even with allergy medicine, George feels befuddled much of the spring. As a research scientist he relies on his mental clarity to solve complex problems, but during allergy season he is unproductive.

Most people don’t realize that allergic reactions to pollen can affect concentration and driving ability. Studies have found that allergies can slow reaction time, interfere with sleep, make people tired and irritable and impair concentration, memory and cognition.

Unfortunately, the medicines many people take to relieve their symptoms can also contribute to poor driving performance and mental cloudiness. Some antihistamines can interfere with reaction time and judgment almost as much as alcohol.

So what’s an allergy victim to do if he wants to survive the sneezing season? A pollen mask can help filter out allergens, but most people are too embarrassed to wear one when they are outside. Staying indoors with a high-efficiency particulate air filter (HEPA) may help somewhat, but such devices are not inexpensive.

There are pharmaceutical solutions, though none is perfect. Non-prescription oral decongestants like pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) have moved behind the counter at the drugstore. They can help relieve stuffiness. People with high blood pressure, heart conditions, diabetes, glaucoma or prostate problems can’t tolerate such drugs, however.

A nonprescription nasal spray called NasalCrom is a relatively benign option. It stabilizes mast cells in the nose and keeps them from releasing histamine. The only downside of this medicine is the relatively short action. You have to use it four times a day to really get much benefit.

Speaking of nasal sprays, avoid topical decongestants. Products that contain vasoconstrictors like oxymetazoline or phenylephrine can only be used for three days. Beyond that the allergy victim runs the risk of developing rebound nasal congestion caused by the medicine. Since allergies almost always last longer than three days, such nose sprays are not the solution.

Prescription allergy medicine includes a number of steroid nasal sprays. For many, this is one of the most effective treatment options. Drugs like Beconase, Flonase, Nasarel, Nasonex, Rhinocort or Vancenase can ease allergy symptoms without causing drowsiness. There are almost too many to choose from.

Other options include oral antihistamines (Alavert, Allegra, Clarinex, Claritin and Zyrtec). Although they are not supposed to cause as much drowsiness as old-fashioned antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl), some people may still experience mental fog while on an antihistamine.

To better understand these and other allergy treatment options, we offer our new book, Best Choices From The People’s Pharmacy (Rodale Books). It is available from the local library, bookstores or online at www.peoplespharmacy.com.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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