How to survive seasonal allergies

April 28, 2011 By Donald Weinberg, M.D.

Many people are more than happy to kiss winter goodbye and welcome spring with open arms. But if you're one of the millions of allergy sufferers in this country, spring is the beginning of a season of misery. And then, just when you think allergy season is behind you, here comes ragweed season—worst between August and November—and another round of coughing, sneezing and itchy eyes.

Allergies occur when allergens—normally harmless substances—are absorbed by an allergic person. The most common allergens include pollen, molds, dust mites, animal dander, foods, medications, cockroach droppings and insect stings.

That person's immune system, thinking the allergen is an invader, overreacts to it by producing IgE antibodies, or proteins that work to protect your body against the allergen. These antibodies attach themselves to special cells, and as part of the process, produce histamine and other chemicals that spark allergy symptoms like runny nose, watery eyes, itching and sneezing.

What can you do about it?
There's no cure for allergies. The best way to fight it is to be prepared. Talk with your doctor to see if these treatment plans are right for you:
• Over-the-counter (OTC) medications—OTC antihistamines can relieve itching and sneezing but some may cause drowsiness. OTC decongestants reduce nasal congestion and dry up excess mucus but may cause jitteriness or sleeplessness. Read product labels for side effects.

• Prescriptions—If OTC drugs don't help, talk to your doctor about prescription drugs. Some medications are available by prescription only; others are different formulations of OTC drugs. Your doctor may also prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs like cortico-steroids or bronchodilators if you begin to suffer asthma symptoms. If you've suffered from repeated hay fever attacks in the past, your doctor can help you avoid developing a more serious problem such as chronic sinusitis or nasal polyps.

• Allergy shots—Some allergies just won't quit. In these cases where medications don't work or aren't tolerated, or allergen avoidance isn't an option, your doctor may recommend allergy shots or injections. Called immunotherapy, these shots contain a small amount of the substances that cause an allergic response. This helps stimulate your immune system. Over the course of a few years, your healthcare provider will increase the amount of the allergen in each shot so you become desensitized to the allergen and experience fewer symptoms. Symptoms usually start improving in the first year of treatment. Some people remain symptom-free after treatment ends, while others require regular shots to keep allergies from coming back.

Donald Weinberg, M.D., specializes in otorhinolaryngology (ENT) at The Hospital of Central Connecticut.