Get information about allergies from Dr. Richard Nass, sinus, ear, nose, and throat specialist in Manhattan
Allergies are a very common problem. But not everyone who complains about an allergy actually has one.
What is an allergy?
An allergy is a specific, exaggerated reaction to a particular substance. Substances that cause this reaction are called allergens. Common respiratory allergens include pollen, mold spores, house dust, and animal dander. Non-respiratory allergens include foods, insect bites/stings, and things with which we come into physical contact.
An allergic reaction releases chemicals into the body that cause symptoms. But in order for an allergic reaction to occur the person must be genetically predisposed and must have had previous contact with the specific allergen.
Allergies can be seasonal, such as pollen, or year-round, such as house dust. In the northeast United States, tree pollination occurs from late winter to mid-spring; grass pollination from mid-spring to mid-summer; and weed pollination from late summer until the first frost.
What are the symptoms of an allergy?
Classic allergy symptoms are profuse, watery, nasal discharge, bouts of sneezing, itchy nose, eyes, mouth, and throat, and tearing. In addition to these symptoms you may also have nasal obstruction, sinus pressure, a feeling of fullness in one or both ears, hearing loss, cough, shortness of breath, and an irritated throat. Those additional symptoms can also be triggered by a non-allergic reaction such as a common cold and by exposure to environmental irritants such as tobacco or other smoke, harmful chemicals, or changes in you environmental conditions.
How can you control the symptoms of allergies?
Allergy treatment falls into three categories: avoidance, medications, and desensitization.
I recommend that you make your bedroom as allergen-free as possible. Remove heavy fabrics from windows, floors, and furniture. Use anti-allergy liners on pillows and mattresses and put regular sheets and pillow cases on top of them. You should also change your sheets and pillow cases several times a week. Buy a HEPA air filter, use it every day, and follow the manufacturer’s instructions to make sure the filter is kept clean.
You can avoid seasonal allergies by staying indoors with the windows closed and an air-conditioner in use whenever possible. Going outside can cause problems especially on dry, windy days when pollen is in the air. You may get some relief from your symptoms by wearing a surgical mask, eyeglasses/goggles, and using a nasal/sinus rinse, as well as a non-medicated eye wash. Dust allergy is especially prevalent during the winter when forced-air heating units are used. Mold allergy is common in damp conditions such as basements, bathrooms, locker rooms, and during the fall when decaying leaves are on the ground.
Over-the-counter and prescription medications control allergy symptoms. Over-the-counter antihistamines, such as Claritin, Allegra, or Zyrtec work well against a runny nose and don’t cause drowsiness. Those drugs also come in combination with a decongestant – Claritin-D, Allegra-D, or Zyrtec-D to treat the sinus pressure and nasal congestion.
But note even so-called non-drowsy antihistamines can cause drowsiness in some people and decongestants may be dangerous for people with certain medical conditions such as hypertension (high blood pressure), heart disease, thyroid disease, certain types of glaucoma, men with prostate problems, and in pregnant women.
And if you’re taking other medications, you must be aware that allergy drugs can have a negative interaction with them. Check with your doctor before you start any new medication if you have any chronic medical issues and/or take any medications regularly.
If you can’t tolerate over-the-counter medications, or if your symptoms continue, you should consult your primary care doctor or an ear, nose, and throat specialist. You may not have an allergy and your symptoms may be caused by something else that needs to be diagnosed and treated. In addition, allergies can cause complications such as sinus, ear, or bronchial infections. And if you need to be tested for allergies, it can be accomplished with a simple blood test.
If you have multiple seasonal allergies, year-round allergies, allergy symptoms that respond poorly to avoidance and medications, can’t tolerate medications, or don’t want to take any medication then desensitization may be an option. Also called immunotherapy, this is the only method of actually curing an allergy rather than just treating its symptoms. Traditional desensitization required several years of periodic injections, but new a new method called sublingual (under the tongue) immunotherapy is very promising. There are no injections and the duration of treatment is shorter.
You don’t have to suffer in silence from an allergy.
Avoid allergens whenever possible, use over-the-counter medications with your doctor's approval, and make an appointment to see me or another doctor if you don’t get relief.