Spring is upon us, and for many that means spring fever. And when spring fever hits, many of us feel like we have an itch that we just can’t scratch. Unfortunately, for almost 20% of Americans, this feeling is all too painful. With spring temperatures come higher hemlines and tanned bodies, but for many it also means a higher pollen count and mold spores in the air flaring up their allergies.
Seasonal allergies, also called allergic rhinitis, or the less scientific “hay fever”, hits when the ground thaws and everything starts coming alive in the spring. When plant, tree and grass pollen starts flying around the atmosphere and spring warmth and moisture stimulates the growth of mold, these allergens can cause an irritation in the lining of the eyes or nose. The body reacts by releasing chemicals, including histamine, which cause the often exhausting and always annoying symptoms of allergic rhinitis.
Symptoms of seasonal allergies often mimic those of a cold and many allergy sufferers don’t even realize they are allergy sufferers for many years. They just cannot understand why they get this pesky persistent cold every year. Symptoms include watery, puffy eyes, sneezing, runny nose, congestion, and itchy nose and eyes. The symptoms ebb and flow as the allergy season progresses.
What exactly constitutes the “allergy season” depends on where you live. In warmer climates, the season can persist throughout the year with no cool winter temperatures to stem the production of pollen and mold. The average season runs from spring through fall. Early spring is when the tree pollen starts to circulate. By mid-summer, it is usually grass that will give you problems, and in the fall, weeds take over the task of making your daily life irritating.
Aside from general season averages, daily weather can also impact how much pollen is circulating in the air. Days that are particularly windy, and those following, will bring on a bad reaction as the wind will pick up and circulate large amounts of pollen. Rainy days and those following will be kinder, as the rain settles and washes away airborne pollen.
While the impact of allergies may seen as no larger than a simple day-to-day irritation for those who suffer, the magnitude of the problem today is also an economic issue. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAI), in 1993, $3.4 billion was spent on allergy doctors and medication in the United States. If medical care is state funded, as it is in Canada, the high medical costs of allergy control come out of the tax payer’s pocket. In the business world, absenteeism at work caused by allergic reactions cost American companies $250 million in 1993 alone.
There are two types of allergens that are particular to hay fever: pollen and mold spores. Other allergens, such as pet dander and dust mites can exacerbate the allergy symptoms when you are safe and sound at home. There are some steps you can take to reduce your risk of allergens in your home. To control allergen levels in your house, make sure that you clean your home often. Dusting and vacuuming often will remove allergens that have settled on the surfaces and floors. If your vacuum does not have an air filter, you may want to wear a paper mask while vacuuming, or leave the house for a couple of hours right after as the vacuum can stir a bevy of allergens into the air.
If you can, keep your windows closed and use an air conditioner in the spring and summer. If you have an air conditioner, make sure that you change the air filter often. If you can’t handle having the windows closed all the time, at least make sure they are closed between 10 am and 4 pm, which are the peak pollen times. Keep your windows closed at night, wash your bedding in hot water at least once a week, and do not hang it to dry outdoors. Shower and wash your hair before going to bed to rid your skin and hair of pollen it has collected throughout the day.
Mold spores thrive in warm, moist areas. To prevent mold from growing inside your house, do what you can to keep it cool and dry, especially in the two most commonly moldy areas: the bathroom and the kitchen. If you can, use a dehumidifier to draw excess moisture out of the air, especially if you have a bathroom with poor ventilation.
To manage your symptoms when spending time outdoors, take any medication you are on at least 30 minutes before heading out. If you can, keep your outdoor activities restricted during peak pollen times (10-4). If you need to participate in any high-risk activities such as raking or mowing the lawn, wear a filter mask. If you are spending the day outside, it might be useful to check allergy forecasts, which are becoming increasingly available as allergy awareness increases. In the United States, the National Allergy Bureau gives daily pollen level reports that are often available through local news sources, often in conjunction with the weather report.
Aside from limiting your activities, there are many medical options available for controlling allergy symptoms. Over the counter medications available include antihistamines, which block the histamine action in the body that cause symptoms to flare up, and decongestants, which clear up stuffy and runny noses. There are also natural remedies that have been shown to alleviate symptoms, if that is your preference. Vitamin C has many therapeutic effects, including antihistamine and anti-inflammatory properties. Large amounts are needed to get Vitamin C’s antihistamine effect, however, so consult a doctor about safe levels. Nettles have been shown as an effective herbal antihistamine, and the homeopathic remedies allium cepa and euphrasia ease nasal discharge and burning tears, while sebadilla can ease sneezing.
If you are experiencing severe symptoms that cannot be eased by over the counter treatments, your doctor or immunologist can prescribe steroids as an anti-inflammatory, prescription-strength antihistamines, or allergy shots (also called immunotherapy). Immunotherapy consists of giving the allergy-sufferer shots that contain increasing doses of the allergens that affect them in order to build up the immune system and decrease sensitivity (along the same lines as homeopathy and immunization). Some allergy sufferers have also found long-term relief with acupuncture treatment.
Spring should be a time of renewal, rebirth and getting out of the stuffy house you have been crammed in all winter. If you suffer from hay fever, chin up! Get started now, before the season hits full bore, and start protecting yourself so you can enjoy spring fever as much as the rest of the world!