While many of us have allergies, no two people seem to have the same signs or symptoms. For some, allergies are simply a nuisance, causing headaches, sneezing, watery eyes or a runny nose. For others, allergies can trigger breathing problems. Some allergies seem to come and go as they please, others stick around for a lifetime. The symptoms can be equally confusing. Is your stuffy nose a result of allergies, or is it a cold or sinus infection?
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"Allergies are unique to each individual," says Dr. Barb Muller, an allergist and medical director at Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield. "But really, at their core, allergies are very simple to understand. Knowing the basics can help you get to the root of the problem."
Allergies take many different forms. Some people are allergic to insect stings, others to certain types of foods or medications, mold or latex. Allergic rhinitis, also known as hay fever, is a common airborne allergy that typically takes two forms:
- Seasonal allergies worsen during certain times of the year. They are typically caused by what is growing outdoors: tree pollen in the spring, grass pollen in the summer, and weed pollen in the fall.
- Perennial allergies occur throughout the year. They may be caused by dust mites, animal dander, and molds.
When you are allergic, your immune system overreacts to something — an allergen — that is harmless to most people. If you come into contact with that allergen, and you're prone to allergies, your immune system considers it foreign. This triggers cells to release allergy substances, such as a histamine, to counteract it.
The release of histamine causes a variety of symptoms, including rashes, headaches, sneezing, runny nose, swelling, nausea or diarrhea. The most severe reaction to an allergen, anaphylaxis, is life-threatening.
If the allergen is inhaled, as is the case of pollen, the reaction is likely to affect your eyes, nose and lungs. If it is something you consume, you're more likely to have symptoms in your mouth, stomach and intestines.
Many symptoms of allergies mirror a cold, so it can be hard to know the difference.
The symptoms of the common cold and allergies are very similar. With a cold, look for sneezing, runny nose, thick, dark mucus, sore throat and body aches. Symptoms of a cold take about three days to appear and usually last for about a week. With allergies, look for sneezing, runny nose, thin, clear mucus, wheezing and red, watery eyes. Symptoms can last for days or months after contact with allergens. This information is according to Pollen.com, Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, CDC/National Center for Health Statistics and American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
According to Muller, "Many people think they are allergic to one thing, such as tree pollen. But it's rare to have a mono-season allergy. It's actually more common to have more than one allergy."
"You may have allergies that occur only in spring or fall, you may have symptoms off and on, without evident cause," says Muller. "The first thing you have to do is narrow it down and try to find a pattern. Then bring that information to your doctor."
Muller adds, "If your allergies are more than just a nuisance, it's important to seek the care of a trusted physician who can help you determine the right course of action."
Tree pollen is the primary allergen in the spring and can float freely through the air. Grass pollen is big in the summer due to spring rains and increased grass growth. Weed pollen causes allergies in the fall. In all seasons, weather conditions determine pollen concentrations.
Allergy fact or fiction?
There are many misconceptions about what causes allergies and how to find relief from symptoms.
Climate change is causing allergy season to last longer.
Fact. "The growing and pollinating season is longer because of climate change," says Muller, "That translates to a longer allergy season. Climate change may also worsen air pollution, causing more asthma attacks."
What's more, plants grow faster and produce more pollen in warmer temperatures. According to a study by the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, pollen counts could double by 2040.
Flowers trigger seasonal allergies.
Fiction. Seasonal allergies are unlikely to be caused by blooming flowers. The pollen from flowers is relatively heavy, so it falls to the ground. In contrast, the pollen from trees, grasses and weeds tends to be very light and can stay airborne for a longer time.
Dry climates can "cure" your allergies.
Fiction. Grass and ragweed pollens are found nearly everywhere. Sure, a climate change may provide short-term relief. But, your new environment is likely to have new allergens.
Allergy medications are helpful only when having allergy symptoms.
Fiction. If you want to control moderate to severe pollen allergies, it's most effective to use allergy medications consistently and, preferably, before symptoms appear. This allows the medicine to prevent your body from releasing histamine and other chemicals that cause your symptoms.
Ragweed is the most common pollen allergy.
Fact. About 75 percent of people with seasonal allergies, especially in the Midwest, are allergic to ragweed. A ragweed allergy, sometimes referred to as "hay fever," affects about 10 to 20 percent of the American population. Ragweed pollinates from mid-August to the end of September.
We all have dust mites in our home.
Fact. "This is a fact of life," states Dr. Muller. Dust mites are microscopic creatures that thrive in warm, dark and moist places with high humidity. They love to hang out in the materials in your mattress and pillows or upholstered furniture. When people are allergic to dust, they are actually allergic to the body and feces of dust mites.
The good news is you can control the amount of dust mites in your home by vacuuming with a HEPA filter, dusting regularly and steam-cleaning carpets. As far as bedding, wash in warm water weekly, and use allergen-proof bedding and pillow covers. To prevent dust mites, Muller suggests using a dehumidifier to keep humidity between 40 – 50 percent.
The statement: "My pet is hypoallergenic."
The Hygiene Hypothesis
There is evidence that infants exposed to pet dander, farm animals and household bacteria in the first year of life are less likely to develop allergic rhinitis and asthma.
Fiction. Beyond snakes or lizards, there is no such thing as a hypoallergenic pet. There is a misconception that pets without fur or pets who have hair instead of fur, are hypoallergenic. However, even hairless cats and dogs can cause allergies. While some breeds may be less allergy-inducing than others, all pets have flakes of skin called dander, which is a common allergen.
Pollen counts can predict bad allergy days.
Fact. While their accuracy is debated, pollen counts can help you know when to limit outdoor activity. Pollen counts measure how much fine yellow dust is in the air over a period of time. If you believe you have a pollen allergy, check pollen counts before you head out for the day. Pollen counts are typically high in the early through late morning. Pollen counts are available at Pollen.com External Site. Many weather forecasts and apps also provide pollen counts.
Over-the-counter treatments for pollen allergies
Muller suggests using a saline nasal spray to help clear allergens like pollen. The most common and effective over-the-counter treatments available for pollen allergies include:
- Nasal corticosteroids. When used regularly, nose sprays like Flonase® or Nasacort® reduce nasal congestion and stop inflammation.
- Antihistamines are typically oral medications that work by preventing more histamine from being released. Some are more sedating than others, so be sure to read labels or talk to the pharmacist.
There are many other types of over-the-counter and prescription allergy treatments. Your best bet is to talk to your doctor about the right choice for you.
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Get around-the-clock answers to your questions about allergies and a variety of spring and summer health-related concerns, from a health care professional. You can also be transferred directly to a Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield customer service associate to answer your coverage questions. Of course, in the case of an emergency, call 911.