AAMC Spells Relief for Allergy
Early Treatment and New Medications Can Keep Seasonal Allergies at Bay
In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall." But for people who suffer from seasonal allergies, the fall can be miserable – what starts is sneezing, coughing, congestion, and itchy, watery eyes. Autumn becomes a time to stockpile tissues along with school supplies.
Seasonal allergies are reactions to something that blooms at a particular time of the year - trees in spring, grasses in summer, and weeds in the fall. Ragweed pollen is the major cause of fall allergies in this area, says Dr. James Banks of Allergy and Asthma Associates in Annapolis, and this year's drenching rains have caused the plant to flourish. "The ragweed is very healthy and plentiful so odds are we will have more ragweed pollen this year than average," Dr. Banks said. But, he continued, rain can help wash pollen from the air. "Once the (ragweed) season arrives, rain is a good thing," he said.
Higher pollen levels are bad news for the 30 million Americans who suffer from allergic rhinitis, more commonly known as hay fever. Here's what happens: when cells in blood and tissue are exposed to an irritant like pollen, they react by releasing chemical mediators such as histamine. The resulting inflammation is responsible for symptoms like sneezing and congestion. Dr. Rachel Howland, an allergist based on Kent Island, describes the process as the immune system doing its job too well.
"What the body is doing is trying to protect itself from irritating substances," says Dr. Howland. "It tries to sneeze out what you're allergic to, flush it out of the eyes, or close off the nose so allergens can't get in." She said that seasonal allergies can range from slightly uncomfortable to totally debilitating. "Severe allergies can affect a person's ability to think clearly, focus, or perform well at school and work," she said. "People who don't have allergies have a hard time understanding how they can incapacitate someone."
Why do some people suffer from allergies when others don't? Dr. Arnold S. Kirshenbaum, who practices in Bowie, says there are both genetic and environmental components. "Allergies definitely run in families, and exposure to certain substances like pollens and mold spores can trigger them as well."
Keeping allergies under control is very important, Dr. Kirshenbaum said. "It has been clearly established that allergies, if left untreated, may lead to serious sinus infections and even life-threatening asthma." Keeping allergies under control can help people avoid such serious consequences. Dr. Duane Gels, an Annapolis-based allergist, says treatments are getting better all the time as doctors learn more about the chemicals released during allergic reactions.
Patients can take advantage of products ranging from over-the-counter decongestants to prescription antihistamines and steroids. "The new antihistamines are very effective and relatively non-sedating," says Dr. Gels. "For many people, products like steroid sprays and creams work well and they have a low chance of serious side effects."
Dr. Gels recommends a combination of treatments to help those with more severe fall allergies. Allergy shots are a possibility for patients who cannot get relief from the medications currently available. And advanced remedies are being tested all the time.
"Newer products such as anti IGE (immunoglobin E) injections are approved for allergic asthma but show great promise in treating more global allergies as well," said Dr. Gels.
That's good news for people whose crisp fall days are punctuated by sneezes. Having more effective allergy remedies can feel like a whole new start.