Allergy season has blown in with a vengeance this year. People who have never suffered allergies before, even those in their 80s and 90s, are sneezing, sniffling and rubbing their itchy eyes.
Climatic conditions may have conspired to produce a bumper crop of fall pollen. If we don’t get a hard freeze, the misery could last for months.
Pollen may not be the only enemy allergy victims have to face. For many, symptoms now persist year round. That may be because their immune systems have been revved up and react to triggers such as house dust that are nearly impossible to avoid.
Our immune systems evolved to protect us against infectious disease and parasites. Those have become less common, so some people have immune systems that have become hyper-vigilant for dust mites, animal dander, mold or mildew as well as pollen.
Once the immune system recognizes a danger, it starts to churn out antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE). IgE connects with receptors on mast cells, and the mast cells go into full alert. They produce histamine and kinins that fuel inflammation. Although inflammation is helpful in fighting germs, it causes misery for allergy sufferers.
Trying to fight off germs with antibacterial soaps contains triclosan may actually make allergies worse for children (Environmental Health Perspectives, March, 2011). Kids who grow up on farms with pets and animals seem less likely to develop allergies, eczema and asthma.
Because we can’t relive our childhood, we’re stuck with the immune systems we have. What’s an allergy sufferer to do?
Short of taking an ocean cruise to get away from pollen, the next best thing is to try to reduce pollen exposure. Keeping the windows and doors closed can help a lot. Other tactics that have been suggested–though not scientifically tested–include showering and shampooing before bed and washing the family pet frequently.
Antihistamines remain the mainstay of drug therapy for allergies and can be helpful in controlling symptoms. It is crucial to select these carefully, however. Some antihistamines, especially diphenhydramine (Benadryl), can impair driving ability.
Newer antihistamines like cetirizine (Zyrtec), desloratadine (Clarinex), fexofenadine (Allegra) and loratadine (Alavert, Claritin, etc) are less likely to cause drowsiness and impair coordination. They can be helpful in controlling allergy symptoms of congestion and sneezing, but after taking cetirizine for a while, stopping may be a challenge. Some people report intolerable itching as a withdrawal symptom.
Other approaches focus more on calming the inflammation. Over the counter NasalCrom (cromolyn) soothes mast cells so they don’t pump out their pro-inflammatory compounds. It works best if used at least three times a day, but some readers have reported changes in their sense of smell.
Doctors often prescribe steroid nasal sprays for severe hay fever. Drugs like Beconase, Flonase, Nasonex or Rhinocort reduce inflammation in the nose and sinuses.
Rinsing nasal passages with saline may also be beneficial. Look for products without preservatives that might be irritating.