Spring is in the air – literally. But along with blue skies, balmy temperatures and budding flowers come the dreaded itchy noses and eyes associated with seasonal allergies.
More than 60 million people in the United States suffer from allergies – hypersensitive reactions of the immune system to substances like mold and pollen. This overreaction can cause symptoms like runny nose, nasal congestion, itchy, watery eyes, asthma and even gastrointestinal or skin disorders. Nasal allergy, known as allergic rhinitis, affects up to 30 percent of all adults.
Nasal allergy symptoms can be hard to distinguish from the symptoms of colds, or even COVID-19, but Dr. Michael Wein, a board-certified allergy doctor on staff at Cleveland Clinic Indian River Hospital, offers some guidance: “Generally, allergy does not result in a fever,” said Dr. Wein.
“If you have a fever along with the sneezing, itchy eyes and nose, nasal discharge and scratchy throat, it’s a pretty good sign that something other than allergy is the cause. The confusing aspect is that allergy symptoms are the same as those of a common cold – and they can increase the frequency of infections. But if the problem is persistent, lasting for weeks or months, then it’s most likely an allergy and not a routine cold [or other infection].
“If nasal symptoms get worse in the spring or fall when the pollen counts are higher, it’s most likely an allergy,” he continued. “If they happen all the time, you might have a year-round allergy due to indoor allergens like dust, pets, chemicals or mold.”
Mold is a tricky one because it’s present all year long and grows both indoors and outdoors. Dead leaves and farm areas are common sources for molds, as well as indoor plants, old books, bathrooms and damp areas. Even foods contain molds.
Some allergies can affect the skin as well the eyes and nose. Your skin may become scaly, bumpy, itchy or otherwise irritated, symptoms that can be caused by a preservative in your soap, shampoo, laundry detergent or cosmetic.
So, what do you do if you are experiencing any of these symptoms?
The best bet is to consult with a board-certified allergy doctor to evaluate your problem and find a solution. In addition to gathering a detailed history and completing a thorough examination of the ears, nose, throat, head and skin, an allergist will offer advice on proper environmental control.
To test for allergies, small amounts of suspected allergens are placed on the skin of the arms, without the use of needles. The procedure lasts about 15-20 minutes. For some patients, patch testing is performed with paper tape to apply allergen patches to the back to help with skin sensitivity and rashes (dermatitis).
“Once we isolate the allergy, there is an endless range of treatments and allergy medications beginning with simple avoidance and including many recent interventions such as monoclonal antibodies and desensitization,” Dr. Wein said.
“In many cases, over-the-counter and prescription medications such as antihistamines, decongestants, inhaled nasal steroids, asthma inhalers, anti-leukotrienes and other anti-inflammatory medicines will alleviate the symptoms.
“If that approach doesn’t work, allergy injections, which are a form of immunotherapy, are proven to be very effective. This FDA-approved treatment, also known as allergy desensitization, may reduce and, in some cases, even completely remove allergy symptoms for many years after the treatment is completed. Symptom control is most successful when multiple approaches are used simultaneously.”
Pets have also been blamed for allergies. There is a myth that allergies are triggered by animal hair, but in reality, they are caused by a protein found in pet skin and saliva. Some dogs are supposedly hypoallergenic, but that is also a myth.
No dog is 100-percent hypoallergenic, but there seems to be fewer problems with breeds with shorter hair and less shedding. The good news for pet lovers is that several studies provide evidence that exposure to cats and dogs actually lowers the risk of developing allergic sensitization in children and young adults.
Left untreated allergies can develop into asthma. “In the United States, asthma affects only an estimated 8 percent of the population,” Dr. Wein said. “But nearly 90 percent of children and 50 percent of adults with asthma have allergy as the underlying cause.”
Dr. Wein offers a number of proactive steps to reduce your exposure to common allergens:
- Wear a pollen mask when mowing the grass or cleaning house.
- Change your air filter regularly in heating and air-conditioning systems and vacuum cleaners, or install an air purifier.
- Keep windows and doors closed during heavy pollen seasons.
- Wipe down indoor-outdoor animals as they return inside to remove pollen on their fur.
- Use daily saline nasal rinses to cleanse your nose and sinuses of allergens.
- Rid your home of sources of mildew.
- Change feather pillows, woolen blankets and woolen clothing to cotton or synthetic materials.
- Enclose mattresses, box springs and pillows in a plastic barrier.
- Use over-the-counter antihistamines and decongestants as needed and tolerated.
- Sleep with the head of the bed tilted upward. Elevating helps relieve nasal congestion.
Dr. Wein graduated magna cum laude from Brown University and has advanced training in Allergy, Asthma and Immunology from Johns Hopkins. He has served as president of the Florida Allergy Society and was a medical school faculty member at Florida State University for over a decade.
Dr. Michael Wein is board certified by the American Board of Allergy and a Fellow of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. A resident of Vero Beach for nearly 30 years, Dr. Wein is on staff at Cleveland Clinic Indian River Hospital and Cleveland Clinic Martin Health. He has offices in Vero Beach and Port St. Lucie and can be reached at 772-299-7299.