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[HEALTHTRACK]

How to Cool Hay Fever

HEALTHTRACK - JUL/AUG 97
A SUPPLEMENT TO THE PHYSICIAN AND SPORTSMEDICINE FOR THE WAITING ROOM


Summertime is sneezin' season for people who have hay fever. For them, Mother Nature is sending out tiny 'guided missiles' in the form of pollen grains and mold spores.

If you're a hay fever sufferer, it might help to know you're not alone. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, based in Bethesda, Maryland, estimates that 35 million Americans experience upper-respiratory allergic reactions to airborne pollen.

Why Do I Sneeze?

Hay fever is another term for allergic rhinitis, a condition that seasonally affects people who are allergic to pollen or mold, and year-round affects people who are allergic to house dust or furry animals. It's thought that people inherit the tendency to have allergies.

Problems occur when a person's immune system reacts to the pollen, mold, dust, or other irritant as if it were an alien invader. The result is watery nasal discharge; sneezing; coughing; itchy eyes, nose, and throat; nasal congestion; and dark circles under the eyes.

Pesky Pollen

Pollen allergies, common during spring, summer, and fall, are caused by trees, grasses, and weeds. Weeds deserve their bad reputation as heavy pollen offenders; ragweed is the major culprit.

Though more than 1,000 species of grasses grow in North America, only a few produce highly allergenic pollen. Trees that produce allergy-causing pollen include oak, ash, elm, hickory, pecan, box elder, and mountain cedar. But it won't do much good to rid your yard of these offenders; air currents carry pollen many miles from its source. Surprisingly, most flowers aren't big allergy producers because their pollen grains are large and heavy and are more likely to be carried on the backs of bugs than by the wind.

Mold Takes Hold

In cold climates, the season for mold allergies is similar to that for pollen allergies but extends to late fall. Freezing temperatures and snow cover keep the mold population in check; however, in warm climates, molds are plentiful all year and can cause year-round allergies.

Like plants, only a small number of molds are allergy offenders. Outdoors, popular mold hangouts include moist, shady areas, and indoors molds tend to congregate in damp basements, closets, and bathrooms.

Culprits on the Home Front

People who have hay fever symptoms all year are probably allergic to house dust, down, and fur-bearing house pets. When seen under a microscope, house dust is a potpourri of fibers, feathers, bacteria, mold, food particles, and dust mites. In urban areas, the waste products of cockroaches can cause allergy symptoms.

It's not animal fur that causes allergies; it's the protein in animal saliva that the critters deposit on their fur during grooming. Since cats are constant preeners, it's easy to see why they are more of a problem. See "Breathe Easier Around Cats," below.

Regaining Control

It's important to control hay fever because if it is left untreated, complications such as sinus infection, sinus headaches, chronic fatigue, ear infections, and even asthma may develop. And always feeling sick can disrupt your sleep and make you irritable. See "Stay Fit During Hay Fever Season," at bottom.

Getting the upper hand over allergies requires a two-part approach: Limit your exposure and treat your symptoms.

Limit your exposure. If you're sensitive to pollen, it helps to:

  • Avoid outdoor activity in the morning when pollen counts are highest. Monitor seasonal pollen counts and limit outdoor activity when counts are high. Weather forecasts on TV, radio, or newspaper are good sources for this information.
  • Keep bedroom windows closed at night.
  • Avoid mowing the lawn, dusting, and vacuuming. If you must, wear a tight-fitting face mask to filter the offending allergen.
  • Stay in air-conditioned surroundings when pollen or mold counts are high. Air-conditioning reduces humidity and pollen levels in the house, and allows you to close the windows to avoid pollen exposure. Air cleaners may also help.

If household allergies are a problem

  • Keep pets and plants out of your home, or at least out of the bedroom.
  • Avoid dust allergies by getting rid of household fixtures that collect dust: carpets, venetian blinds, knickknacks, and down pillows and comforters, for example.
  • Enclose pillows, comforters, and mattresses in zippered vinyl casings.
  • Wash bedding in water hotter than 130°F to kill dust mites.
  • Dehumidify the basement to discourage mold growth, and empty the dehumidifier water tank often.

Address your symptoms. If avoiding allergy offenders isn't enough to decrease your symptoms, one of many over-the-counter medications may be effective. Base your drug selection on your most bothersome symptoms. Antihistamines reduce sneezing, runny nose, and itchy eyes, nose, and throat. If congestion is your worst problem, select a decongestant. Several products combine antihistamines and decongestants. People react differently to these medications, so if you aren't finding relief after about 5 days of use, consider trying a different one.

See your doctor if symptoms worsen or you find that you're increasing the amount of medication to control them. A doctor may perform medical tests to target the likely cause of your allergy. And your physician may recommend one of the many prescription medications that are effective for treating allergies, including antihistamines, topical nasal steroids, and cromolyn sodium. If allergies are severe, a physician may prescribe allergy shots.

If your hay fever is holding you hostage this time of year, be heartened that the symptoms aren't something that you have to live with. An action plan of prevention and medication may transform your summer from "sneezin' season" to "pleasin' season."


Breathe Easier Around Cats

Animal fur isn't really the cause of allergies; it's a protein in animal saliva that's the culprit or allergen. Pets, particularly cats, spread the allergen around when they groom themselves. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, based in Bethesda, Maryland, advises cat lovers to reduce their exposure to the allergen by bathing cats weekly, brushing them often (with a face mask on if needed), and keeping them out of the bedroom.


Stay Fit During Hay Fever Season

Hay fever and sports don't mix well. Exercise doesn't sound very enticing when you're sneezing and your nose is running. And to make matters worse, some sports situations expose people to the pollens or molds they're trying to avoid. But these simple preventive measures may help you stay on your fitness course, even when the pollen is heavy.

  • Take your over-the-counter or prescription medication before you head outdoors. That may prevent symptoms from developing during your activity or exercise.
  • Adapt your activities to the time of year. For example, you could substitute tennis (on a clay court) for golf when the pollen counts are high. Or you could run on a treadmill instead of outdoors.
  • Schedule outdoor activities when pollen counts are lowest, usually at midday.
  • Keep a personal activity record to discover the times of day and sports that work best for you.
  • Take a different route if you're a runner or cyclist. During allergy season, many people can minimize respiratory distress by avoiding routes where other irritant levels are high, such as along busy highways.


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