Spring and fall are considered “allergy season” in the United States, since these are the times when plant pollen is heavy in the air. Many people suffer allergy symptoms due to year-round allergens such as mold, dust mites and pet dander, but symptoms worsen significantly when pollens are released in their area (or when a storm system brings in pollen from another region).
According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, “the costs associated with allergic disease are extraordinarily high: one analysis estimated it at $7.9 billion per year, of which $4.5 billion was spent on direct care and $3.4 billion on indirect costs, related primarily to lost work productivity”. Every day an average 10,000 children will miss school due to allergic rhinitis (nasal inflammation or “runny nose”). Since visits to the doctor and prescribed medications are usually expensive, alternative treatments and preventive measures can be very helpful.
It is important to understand the meaning of the term “allergic load” since it plays a part in preventing symptoms. Most people with allergies are sensitive to more than one allergen, which could include pollen, mold, chemicals such as household cleaners, fragrances, foods and beverages, fabrics, metals, contaminants in water, animal dander, dust mites, drugs, or latex. The incidence of symptoms depends on how many allergens and how much of each the person is exposed to at any given time. This total allergen exposure is termed the “allergic load.” Many people have subclinical (producing no symptoms) allergies to year-round allergens such as foods or animal dander, but do not realize it because they only have symptoms in spring and/or fall pollen seasons. The addition of pollen in the air is the straw that breaks the camel’s back – the individual’s immune system becomes overloaded, resulting in runny nose, itchy/watery eyes, asthma, hives, itching, rashes, and in extreme cases, anaphylactic shock.
The concept of allergic load means that in the spring and fall individuals with pollen allergies should do everything possible to reduce exposure to allergens of all types, not just pollen. For example, food allergies should be investigated. The foods that most commonly cause allergic reactions are eggs, dairy products, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, and soy. To determine if you or your child are allergic to any of these foods, first remove all of them from your diet for two weeks. Pay attention to any changes in your symptoms during this time. If your allergy symptoms improve, you may be allergic to one or more foods. Add each type of food back into your diet, one per week, until symptoms redevelop. Remove the last food and try adding a different one. This is to find out if you were allergic to that food by itself or if you reached the limit of your allergic load. The process takes a long time and requires considerable self-control, especially in the first two weeks. Keep in mind that the foods we love the most are often our strongest allergens!
Besides food allergens, reduce exposure to household chemicals (touched or inhaled), especially items with fragrance like fabric softener. Do not use scented candles, incense, air fresheners, perfume, or similar products. Stay away from smokers if you can, and if you yourself smoke, begin the process of quitting! Avoid contact with latex, wool, leather, and metal, particularly leather or metal watch bands, which are worn for long periods of time.
When exposure is unavoidable (such as mowing the grass), wear a filter mask. It may take time for you to adjust to breathing with a mask (some people feel unable to breathe at first), but it is well worth the effort if you have severe allergies. After being outdoors – particularly working in the yard – change clothes and shower as soon as possible to avoid spreading pollen around the house. Use a HEPA filter on your air conditioner and on your vacuum cleaner. Vacuuming should be done frequently, but wear a mask for this task as well, since the vacuum cleaner stirs up the dust and other particles in the carpet. Don’t forget to vacuum the upholstery and drapes too, especially if you have animals in the house. Depending on the climate where you live, a humidifier or a de-humidifier may be helpful to control the level of moisture in your home. Regulating moisture is crucial to preventing overgrowth of mold.
With careful investigation and some lifestyle changes, you may significantly improve your allergy symptoms, resulting in less misery, lower costs, and fewer sick days. Good luck!