It’s no secret to allergy sufferers that April showers don’t bring just May flowers: They also unleash often-debilitating symptoms of runny noses and itchy eyes. But what about late summer and early fall when it’s said that ragweed begins its aggressive migration toward unsuspecting victims? And how about those completely unanticipated attacks in October or December or March when all is supposed to be calm in the nasal canals?
For all the advances made in the field of allergy and immunology in the last 20 years, the fact remains that allergies (commonly thought to be seasonal) are really unpredictable. In the United States alone an estimated 20-25% of the population suffers from some form of seasonal allergy. And an increasing number of these people complain of symptoms outside the predicted times.
“The factors that contribute to allergies are not easily identifiable,” says Dr. Michael Schatz, staff allergist at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego and board member of the American Academy of Allergy and Immunology. “And even the known factors don’t explain the variability we see among allergy sufferers.”
How Allergies Happen
Allergic reactions occur when the body’s immune system overreacts to the presence of something that is not usually found in the body. Why this happens is not known. Pollen is actually harmless, but when it enters the body through inhalation, the body produces histamines to simply counteract the antigens on the pollen.
Allergy sufferers produce too much histamine, which then binds with other cells to produce the uncomfortable symptoms of itchy and watery eyes, running nose, and nasal congestion technically referred to as “rhinitis.” Individuals prone to allergies are known to have abnormally high levels of immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies, the substance secreted by plasma cells during the immune reaction to pollen.
Those with allergies are divided into “seasonal” (those with pollen-related symptoms) and “perennial” (those with adverse reactions to dust mites, animal danders, molds, and the like). What is happening increasingly is that so-called “seasonal” sufferers are becoming “perennial” sufferers because they endure a chronic state of inflammation and nasal obstruction.
According to Dr. Gary Rachelefsky of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine, in a recent article in the Annals of Asthma, Allergy, and Immunology, “untreated allergic rhinitis frequently leads to much more serious diseases in both the upper and lower airways.” These can include asthma, sinusitis, and polyps.
Seasonal sufferers can find themselves troubled over allergy symptoms that don’t appear “seasonal.” Chronic inflammation may be the cause. Dr. Schatz also suggests that some people “simply have more sensitive or extra-responsive noses, and can find themselves having responses to things like strong perfumes, aerosols, and fumes that mimic allergies.”
Take Allergies Seriously
Given the prevalence of allergic rhinitis, it is surprising that most people consider allergies “something to live with,” preferring to rely on over-the-counter medications to relieve symptoms.
But, according to Dr. Rachelefsky, in addition to runny nose and itchy eyes, non-nasal symptoms can extend to headaches, thirst, sore throat, plugged or itchy ears, diminished taste, chronic or nonproductive cough, mouth breathing, throat clearing, and snorting. Nasal obstruction and mouth breathing can lead to sleep apnea and sleep disturbances.
Allergies can also lead to emotional and psychological symptoms that most often go untreated or even unrecognized as related to allergies. According to a 1990 survey published in Psychosomatic Medicine, allergic rhinitis sufferers have a higher frequency of depression, anxiety, shyness, fearfulness, and fatigue than normal subjects.
Several surveys conducted in 1994 and 1995 and published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology reported impaired quality of life in allergy sufferers. Sleep disturbance alone can seriously reduce overall performance of daily activities.
Since allergic rhinitis is not considered “a dangerous condition,” sufferers can often feel that discussion of symptoms (or complaining) is unwarranted. This leads to the condition being underreported and undertreated, especially among populations whose symptoms are extending beyond typical seasons.
What You Can Do
The first directive for preventing allergic rhinitis is avoidance: Stay away from what ails you. Your physician may recommend allergy skin testing as a way to identify environmental factors to which you are allergic. You should consult a physician who can help you understand the range of symptoms and suggest proper treatments. This may sound obvious, but allergy sufferers commonly decide “to grin and bear it,” or self-medicate with over-the-counter antihistamines.
This can be a mistake, because the drowsiness associated with such drugs can be debilitating. In addition, some over-the-counter nasal sprays can lead to increased nasal congestion (rebound congestion) if they are used for over 3 days and then discontinued. Prescription nasal sprays do not carry these same risks.
Furthermore, if you’ve relied on garden-variety antihistamines in the past and not sought a medical opinion on your condition, you may be heading for chronic nasal inflammation and exacerbated symptoms. Since allergic rhinitis is also associated with asthma, it is wise to be examined and properly diagnosed. Particularly if you find that your allergies are occurring year round, you need to examine the source.
Breathing well is the best revenge.
Article By: Michael Rush, Medical Writer