Relief for Spring Allergies

Dr. Nilesh Shah gives these recommendations to survive allergy season in the Northwest

Seattle, Wash. – Even before the first flowers begin to bud in the spring, many people in the Puget Sound region who have allergies start sneezing. Surprisingly, spring allergy season starts long before the first day of spring in our area.

Though a number of plants such as grass and weeds can cause spring allergies, the most common culprits are trees. Here in the Northwest, the biggest allergy offenders are cedars and ashes. They also happen to be the first trees to release pollen — often as early as February. The cause of spring allergies, regardless of the type of plant, is pollen. Pollen grains are small enough to pass directly into a person’s airway after being released from the flowering part of the plant. If the person is allergic to the pollen, their body will release chemicals called “histamines” that cause symptoms such as sneezing, watery eyes or a runny nose.

The first step to find relief from spring allergies is to figure out exactly what you are allergic to. Many people think that allergy testing will produce all the answers. In reality, these simple skin or blood tests that show which substances produce allergic reactions should not be the primary means of diagnosis. Instead, careful self-assessment is key. Whenever I have a new patient, I ask them keep a log of the symptoms they are experiencing, whether they are happening indoors or outdoors, what time of year their symptoms are at their worst, and what time of day they find themselves blowing their nose the most.

The next step is to pinpoint which plants are triggering your allergy symptoms. A review of your symptom log combined with allergy testing will help your doctor discover precisely which pollen your body is reacting to. Once the cause of your allergy has been identified, you can take steps to avoid it. Many patients use daily pollen counts to help them plan their outdoor activities. Online pollen count websites, like pollen.com, are great resources for people with spring allergies. Most are updated daily with lists of currently-blooming plants and forecasts of pollen intensity that can help you plan ahead to prevent exposure.

I also advocate a variety of simple self-care methods for my patients. Neti pots are especially helpful. These nasal and sinus irrigation tools use water or saline to flush allergens out of your system, cutting short your allergic reaction. Over the counter decongestant nasal sprays should be avoided, however. They shrink and dry the nasal tissue, and giving your body temporary relief. However, when the medication wears off, your congestion and drainage will return more severely than before. If used for longer than recommended, your body becomes physiologically addicted to the decongestant and your symptoms will get progressively worse.

If avoiding pollen and simple self-care methods don’t provide relief, there are a number of prescription medications that can do the trick. Antihistamines are the type of allergy medication most people are familiar with. Antihistamines stop or reduce allergy symptoms by blocking the effect of histamines.

Another type of allergy medication is cromolyn sodium. It attacks the allergic process at a different point than antihistamines by preventing your body from releasing histamine in the first place. You can take cromolyn sodium when you know you’re going to be exposed to an allergen, such as before setting out on a day-long hike. When combined with an antihistamine, most people get a great deal of relief even from severe allergy symptoms.

A third type of medication that can alleviate your spring allergy symptoms is nasal steroid spray. Unlike antihistamines and cromolyn sodium, which prevent an allergic reaction when you are exposed to pollen, nasal steroids reduce your overall allergic response before exposure. Steroids are an anti-inflammatory medication, and though they can’t cure allergies, they can significantly diminish the severity of your symptoms over time. They are safe for long-term use by adults as well as children.

Don’t let your spring allergies keep you indoors this year. Get relief, then get out and smell the roses.

Nilesh Shah, M.D. is board certified in otolaryngology and otolaryngologic allergy. He practices at Northwest ENT Associates. For more information, visit nwentassociates.org.

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