Asthma and Allergies

What Are Seasonal Allergies and How to Counter Them

By Sarah Bivens, MSN, APRN, FNP-BC

Spring is in the air, the sun is shining brighter and the birds are returning. This also means that eyes are watering, noses are running and irritated throats act like mucus superhighways. With springtime comes seasonal allergies for millions of Americans from coast to coast. Many also suffer through occasional asthma flare-ups, coughing fits and seemingly non-stop sneezing. For their significant others, the snoring and grumbling return like out-of-town relatives at Thanksgiving. What to do; what to do?

Grab your Kleenex and read along as we discuss what allergies are and some ways to counter their attempts to ruin your day.

What are they and why?

When you breathe in (or come in contact with) an allergen, your body mistakes it as a harmful substance and treats it accordingly. Your immune system kicks in to remove the allergen or protect you from the perceived harm, causing bothersome allergy symptoms. Symptoms can vary from very mild to severe and can even be life-threatening in certain circumstances. Allergens can affect the skin, digestive system, airways, nasal passages… you get the picture. The reactions kicked in by the immune system trying to protect you actually feel like harm.

Prevention

The best way to prevent allergic reactions is to learn what you are allergic to and then do your best to steer clear of it. This might not be possible depending on the allergen. If you have a history of severe or life-threatening allergic reactions, it may be a good idea to have a medical bracelet. The bracelet can alert others should you have a severe reaction and cannot communicate.

Wearing a mask not only helps reduce the spread of viruses like COVID-19 and influenza but also significantly reduces the allergens (i.e., pollen) breathed in, and because of that, masks reduce the severity of seasonal allergy symptoms. Wearing a clean mask (washed cloth, disposable, N95, etc.) when you go outside for a walk, while you’re gardening or whatever activity takes you outside, will cut down the suffering caused by seasonal allergies.

If avoiding and filtering the allergens that bother you still results in persistent symptoms, maybe sometimes debilitating exacerbations, talk to your primary care provider to see if allergy testing is right for you. When an advanced understanding of your sensitivities is gained, options such as shots, sublingual drops or even a simple pill can provide sustained relief and lower risks.

For asthmatics, allergy season can be particularly challenging as an allergic trigger can set off a sudden asthma attack. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology urges asthma patients to take all medications as prescribed, even when no asthma symptoms are present. Medications fall into two categories:

  • Long-term (maintenance) medications strive to prevent flare-ups and help control asthma. They primarily reduce inflammation and swelling in the lungs.
  • Short-term (rescue) medications are used to relieve symptoms during a flare-up or before exercising.

NOTE: If you are using short-term medications (rescue inhalers) more than twice a week, ask your provider if changes to your treatment plan are needed to better control your asthma.

If you have allergies, there are plenty of over-the-counter medications to choose from. Some of the most common types are:

  • Antihistamines to stop itching, sneezing and a runny nose
  • Antihistamine eye drops to help with itch or gritty feeling
  • Decongestant to reduce stuffy nose
  • Nasal Decongestant
  • Steroid nasal spray

When it comes to medications, you may not want to take any that cause you to feel listless or wired. Can allergy supplements offer an alternative with fewer side effects?

According to David Rakel, MD, founder and director of the University of Wisconsin Integrative Medicine Program, “Honestly, the pharmaceuticals often work a little better. But there are some [supplements] out there that can help.” This sentiment is often repeated by other experts in the field.

But you need to be careful which supplements you try. Like allergy medication, some supplements can help by blocking the chemical reactions that result in allergy symptoms. However, depending on your sensitivities and other medications you may be taking, some could actually trigger an allergic reaction.

ALWAYS talk with your primary care provider before adding new supplements.

Here are a few commonly recommended natural supplements:

Butterbur does not cause sleepiness, a common side effect of antihistamines and an extract of butterbur root relieves nasal symptoms comparably to OTC antihistamines (like Zyrtec or Allegra). This herb blocks some of the chemicals which trigger swelling in nasal passages similar to the way Singulair works.

Note: Eating raw butterbur root is dangerous. Ensure your supplements are labeled UPA-free.

Quercetin helps block the release of inflammation-causing histamine. This herbal helper is found in wine, fruits and vegetables. It joins with carotene and vitamin K in Stinging Nettle. Stinging Nettle is frequently touted as helping at the first signs of allergic symptoms – but be sure to get extracts from the leaf and not the root.

Note: Be very cautious with bitter orange (also called Citrus aurantium), often sold as a decongestant because it behaves similarly to ephedra. Serious side effects can include an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart problems and stroke.

Springtime ushers in some of the best and most enjoyable parts of the year. And for many, it brings allergies, too. You can maximize the best and minimize the rest by consciously avoiding allergens, masking to create a barrier and working with your primary care provider to navigate a plan that may include medication and/or supplements.

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