By Sherry Torkos
Warmer weather is approaching, and with it comes a new growing season for trees and grass; flowers start to bloom, and pollen hits the air. Although the warmth is a welcome change, the shift from spring to summer brings misery to an estimated 50 million Americans who suffer from seasonal allergies.
Allergies are on the rise, affecting as many as 30 percent of adults and 40 percent of children. Several theories have been postulated to explain the rising prevalence, from changes in our diet (increasing consumption of junk food) and the way food is grown (GMOs and pesticides) to exposure to chemicals in the environment and our ultra-hygienic way of living.
Although researchers continue to explore the underlying cause of allergies, we can explain what is happening in the body of those afflicted. Allergies occur when the immune system overreacts or reacts inappropriately upon exposure to an otherwise harmless substance—the allergen. For those with seasonal allergies, the triggering substances are trees, grass, or flower pollen. The immune system recognizes these substances as foreign and responds by producing antibodies, which trigger the release of inflammatory chemicals, including histamine, leukotrienes, and prostaglandins. Histamine is responsible for the notorious allergy symptoms of itchy eyes, a runny nose, and sneezing; leukotrienes cause excess mucus production, and prostaglandins trigger inflammation.
Allergies and colds share some common symptoms, such as sneezing, runny nose, congestion, and sinus pain and pressure. So how do you tell the difference? A cold usually lasts seven to 10 days, whereas allergy symptoms persist much longer—weeks to months. Sneezing associated with allergies often occurs in rapid and multiple sequences; those with a cold are more likely to experience sporadic sneezing. Mucus secretions are clear or runny with allergies, but often yellow or greenish with a cold. In addition, allergies often cause itchy eyes, nose, and mouth or throat.
Having an allergy skin test is the quickest and most accurate way to determine your specific allergy triggers. Knowing your triggers is important so that you can take steps to avoid them. An allergy skin test is an easy procedure: The skin is lightly pricked with an allergen (such as grass or flower pollen) and after 20 minutes the doctor checks for an allergic reaction, such as redness and swelling.
There are several over-the-counter and prescription medications that can help manage allergy symptoms. Antihistamines are used to treat itching, runny nose, and sneezing. Older antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) are effective, but they cause substantial drowsiness and need to be taken several times throughout the day (about every six hours). Newer products such as cetirizine (Zyrtec) and loratadine (Claritin) cause less drowsiness and are taken once daily; however, they may still cause side effects such as dry eyes, mouth, and nose. Antihistamine eye drops, such as Visine, are commonly used to relieve the notorious red allergy eyes—but they really just mask the problem and can also cause dry eyes and irritation.
Decongestants relieve sinus congestion, or that feeling of fullness and pressure. Examples include pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine. These products are effective, but their side effects can be troublesome and include insomnia, racing heart, increased blood pressure, and irritability. Those with high blood pressure, glaucoma, or prostate enlargement should avoid these products. Nasal sprays containing decongestants work quickly and are less likely to cause racing heart or high blood pressure, but these products can cause rebound congestion if used for longer than three days.
Considering all of the side effects associated with allergy medications, it is not surprising that natural methods for dealing with allergies have become very popular. There are several dietary, lifestyle, and supplemental strategies that can greatly help manage allergy symptoms—and even help to prevent them from occurring.
For congestion: Nasal irrigation with a neti pot or nasal wash can help clear pollen and mucus from your nasal passages, relieve congestion, and improve breathing. Make a salt-water solution by mixing 1 teaspoon of canning or pickling salt with 16 ounces (2 cups) of purified lukewarm water. Adhering to this ratio makes sure any parasites floating in the water are dead. Lean forward over a sink and slowly pour the solution into one nostril and let it run out the other nostril. This can be repeated a few times daily. You can also add a few drops of essential oils (such as eucalyptol) to the nasal wash to enhance the effects.
For sneezing and runny nose: Try a supplement that contains butterbur. This herb helps reduce inflammation and has antihistamine effects. Some research has found it to be just as effective as commonly used antihistamine drugs.
For red eyes: Try Similasan Allergy Eye Relief. This homeopathic remedy contains 100-percent natural ingredients that work to activate the body’s own healing ability and helps relieve the burning, itching, and redness associated with allergies. It does not contain any harsh chemicals or vasoconstrictor drugs.
For a dry hacking cough: Try a teaspoon of dark honey. Honey contains various nutrients that help to calm a cough and soothe a sore throat.
Finding relief from seasonal allergies may involve a variety of lifestyle, supplemental, and medical approaches. For more advice, consult with your healthcare practitioner.
Sherry Torkos is a pharmacist, author, and health enthusiast with a passion for prevention. She has authored 18 books and booklets, including The Canadian Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, Saving Women’s Hearts, and The Glycemic Index Made Simple. For more information visit sherrytorkos.com.