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Suffering with Spring Allergies? Here's What You Need to Know

April 22, 2015

photo: flickr/tinafranklindgMost of us can’t wait for the real spring weather to arrive, but if you suffer from spring-time allergies, you might feel differently! Here's what you need to know to enjoy the season sniffle-free...

What are allergies? Simply put: your body overreacting.

An allergy is basically your immune system overdoing it. That may sound a bit too simple given all the problems that allergies cause, but that's really what an allergy is. What does “overdoing it” mean? It means that your immune system decides to treat something that is not an invader like it is an invader.Your immune system confuses these otherwise harmless substances for substances that can make you sick, like bacteria or a virus. When this happens, the harmless substance becomes an allergen - the thing that causes an allergic reaction.

Here's how allergens can cause so much trouble...

Well known allergens are the pollen from trees, grass and weeds, dander from dogs and cats, dust (although it’s actually the dust mite feces that people are allergic to!), poison ivy, mold, bee and wasp sting venom, and foods like peanuts and shell fish. In the Spring, trees are the big offenders!

Allergens can cause some unpleasant side effects for the part of your body being "invaded." As soon as your immune system recognizes the invader as foreign to your body (sometimes the term used for this kind of an invader is “non-self”), it activates specialized cells in the area to respond to the invader by engulfing (eating and digesting it) or releasing toxic chemicals that may directly destroy the invader or change the environment to allow other specialized cells to come and join the fight! 

These defensive chemicals and cells not only target the invader, but can cause the normal cells in the invaded area to swell, or itch or hurt, etc. If the invaded area is your nose, you can get sneezing, congestion, a runny nose, post-nasal drip or coughing. 

If your body is actually under an attack by a serious invader (a bacteria or virus that would love to completely take over your body), it is worth having some of those symptoms/problems in order to get rid of the invader. On the other hand, if your immune system responds like that to a harmless tree pollen, you’ve got a problem each spring!

This type of scenario is called an allergic reaction, and it can affect several different parts of your body. While an allergic reaction in your nose (allergic rhinitis) is really inconvenient, an allergic reaction that involves your throat or lungs can stop you from breathing (because there is so much swelling that the air can’t get through) and can be fatal. This may sound overdramatic, but if you’ve ever seen someone have an asthma attack from a Spring allergy, you know how serious it can be.

Surprise! Allergies can come and go, and even masquerade as other conditions.

People are often surprised to learn that allergies can occur at virtually any age and can change in intensity. Some people have severe allergies in childhood and then grow out of them. Other people never get allergy symptoms until they are in their 30’s, 40’s or 50’s! Just because you’ve never had a problem with allergies doesn’t mean that this year’s Spring sneezing isn’t from an allergy. Once you have allergies, they may remain at a mild level or progress over time to truly affect your quality of life.

Another thing to keep in mind with regard to allergies is that they can sometimes be the underlying cause of another problem. Some people who are prone to sinus infections (without other classic nose allergy symptoms) really just have an allergy which leads to inflammation in the sinuses, which then leads to an infection. Other people have asthma with an allergic trigger, even though they don’t have the typical nose allergy symptoms.

But they can usually be conquered for good.

Solutions for those suffering with allergies include avoiding the allergen (but if your allergen is pollen, that can be tough if you need to leave your house, and most of us do!); medications (like antihistamines, nasal steroids, decongestants, and anti-leukotrienes); and allergy shots. 

Avoidance and medications can be very effective ways to temporarily control your symptoms. But if you want a chance at a permanent cure, allergy shots (or sublingual allergy therapy) are your best strategy. To receive allergy shots, you must first undergo allergy testing to confirm what particular substance you're allergic to. 

So, if that springtime pollen seems to be making you miserable, or if you suspect you're allergic to anything else, there's no need to simply suffer with it. Getting allergy testing may be the beginning to the relief you're looking for!

Dr. Christopher Charon is an ear, nose and throat (ENT) physician and surgeon, practicing with ENT Associates of Worcester, Inc. and serving Northeast Connecticut through his office in Putnam. Dr. Charon is also an associated physician and surgeon of Day Kimball Healthcare.
Learn more about Dr. Charon >

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