Even as pollen levels reach record highs, there's hope for allergy sufferers.
Ah, allergy season. Seems like it's getting longer—and worse—every year, doesn't it? It's not your imagination. According to experts, the combination of a cold winter, a sudden spring, and extra botanical activity due to global warming has boosted pollen counts to near-record highs across the United States.
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), an allergy is is an overreaction of the immune system to a foreign substance. This immune overreaction can cause coughing, sneezing, itchy eyes, a runny nose and a scratchy throat. In severe cases, it can cause rashes, red bumps and swelling, lower blood pressure, difficulty breathing, asthma attacks and even death.
If you're already suffering from allergies, none of this is news for you. If you've never suffered from allergies, you are lucky—but don't think you are out of the woods. Adults can get new allergies more often than you'd think.
According to Dr. Joseph Callanan of The Allergy Group in Boise, Idaho, about 25 percent of the population has some kind of allergy. "Allergies usually peak for those who are between ages 10 and 25, but as people get older they're less likely to develop them," he says.
However, genetics can change that. "If you have one or both parents with allergies, you have a higher chance of developing them as an adult," says Dr. Callanan. More Americans than ever before say they are suffering from allergies. It's one of the most common (but most often overlooked) diseases.
There are several treatments for allergies, and researchers are finding new options all the time. The first thing an allergy specialist will tell you to do is to avoid what you are allergic to as often as you can. Of course, this is usually easier said than done.
If you are allergic to latex, you have to watch out for things that can be made of latex, such as rubber gloves, balloons and toys. Anyone with a food allergy can tell you how hard it can be to spot ingredients such as dairy, nuts and fish.
But if you suffer from seasonal allergies, you can't completely avoid breathing the pollen-filled air. You can, however, keep track of the current pollen count, your region's pollen types and what the pollen forecast is.
For example, Dr. Callanan says, in Idaho, there are four kinds of pollen: tree, grass, weed and sagebrush. "Southwest Idaho has a long growing season," he says. "The worst allergic pollens are grass in late May and especially the first two weeks of June to the Fourth of July." Other regions have varying degrees of pollen and mold spores, two common airborne allergens. Visit Pollen.com to find out more about counts and forecasts in your area.
Medications such as antihistamines block the allergic reaction and relieve symptoms. They come in tablets, syrups and eye drops. Some over-the-counter antihistamines like Benadryl (diphenhydramine) can cause drowsiness. Others, such as Claritin (loratadine), may not make you drowsy but can still have side effects.
Steroids can reduce the redness, itching and swelling caused by allergies. The most common forms are nasal sprays that treat irritated sinuses and stuffy noses, such as Flonase (fluticasone). Steroids also come in over-the-counter topical creams for hives, rashes and insect stings.
According to Dr. Callanan, slow-release cortisone shots may also work well, especially for those with severe seasonal allergies. But, only healthy patients who don't have diabetes, cataracts or high blood pressure should get them. "You have to individualize every treatment," he says. "What's right for one person may not work well for another."
Xolair (omalizumab) is a relatively new allergy medication. This type of medicine works by preventing the release of histamine. It is used to treat moderate to severe, ongoing allergic asthma that can't be controlled well with common inhaled asthma drugs.
Singulair (montelukast) is an allergic-asthma medication intended for long-term control. It reduces swelling inside the airways and relaxes smooth muscles around the airways. While this kind of drug has been proven to be successful at improving asthma and stuffy nose and painful sinus symptoms, it often doesn't work as well as common inhaled asthma drugs.
Immunotherapy involves gradually giving you more and more of something you are allergic to in order to train your immune system to get used to it so that it stops causing you allergic symptoms. Immunotherapy is currently the only treatment that changes the underlying cause of an allergy—your body. It's especially useful for people with severe allergies that are hard to avoid, such as pollens, dust and dander.
While allergy shots are the common form of immunotherapy in the United States, drops placed under the tongue are used in other parts of the world. According to Dr. Callanan, putting a drop under your tongue is a promising alternative to getting regular shots at the doctor's office. "Of course, you'd have to make sure the patient is conscientious about taking it," he says.
If your allergies are getting in the way of your daily activities, or your symptoms seem to be getting worse, go visit an allergy specialist to find out if new therapies and treatment options are right for you.
Published on May 3, 2010; updated on May 20, 2014.