Health Focus Archive
Allergies & Hayfever
What are allergies?
Hay fever, the common name for respiratory allergies,
is your body's reaction to irritants in the air. Normally your
immune system fights off only those things that threaten your
health, such as cold viruses and cancer cells. But like a hypersensitive
smoke detector, an allergic person's immune system sounds the
alarm at the slightest provocation, sending off waves of the
chemical histamine to fend off the presumed offender. Unfortunately,
the side effects of histamine are the symptoms we associate
with allergies: a runny nose and sneezing, itchy nose and throat,
watery red eyes, and congestion.
Who gets allergies?
About one person in ten suffers from allergies
at some point in life. Allergies tend to run in families, women
are slightly more likely to get them than men are, and they
can start at any age.
How can I find out what's causing
Allergy attacks are usually triggered by such
things as pollen, mold, animal dander, and -- gross! -- the
microscopic waste products of the hordes of tiny dust mites
that live in your bedding, carpets, furniture, and clothes.
Try keeping a diary of your symptoms. Track when
and where you notice them, as well as what you were doing at
the time. If you notice that your nose starts running every
time you go down into your damp basement, for example, you've
probably found your culprit: mould.
If that doesn't work, an allergy specialist can
give you a skin test to find out what's setting off your immune
system's alarm button. In this test, small amounts of allergens
are either scratched or injected into your skin. If you're allergic,
the area will become red and irritated. Skin tests are generally
reliable, but they can sometimes yield false positives and negatives.
Will my allergies ever go away?
When the offending allergen goes away -- when
pollen season ends, for example -- so will your symptoms. But
if the culprit is the family cat, you'll need that box of tissues
for a while.
Sometimes allergies do go away or become less
severe over time, but they can also worsen as you get older.
Many people get relief when they move to a new location, though
they may develop a new set of allergies after the first few
years (which is how long it can take for allergens in a new
environment to trigger your immune system).
What are the best ways to get
The best thing you can do is to try to avoid
whatever you're allergic to. When that's not possible, these
other strategies may work:
- Use antihistamines to stop itchy, watery eyes, a runny nose,
sneezing, and a swollen throat or hives. These come in both
prescription and over-the-counter pills, liquids, and injections.
If your allergies are mild, an over-the-counter drug will
probably do fine. If it makes you sleepy, ask your doctor
about one of the newer prescription antihistamines that don't
- Take a decongestant -- available as tablets, liquids, and
nasal sprays -- to relieve congestion. Be aware, though, that
using sprays too often can lead to rebound congestion, meaning
the symptoms worsen each time they return until the spray
is actually treating symptoms it caused.
- If you have severe symptoms, check into desensitizing allergy
shots. This treatment, which involves injecting increasing
amounts of the allergen into your skin, can help your immune
system gradually adjust to irritants in the air until you
can tolerate ragweed season without so much as a sneeze.
- Shower or bathe at night to remove pollens or other allergens
from your skin and hair.
- Install clean air filters in your home often, and bring
a portable air filter to your office. Keeping windows shut
and running an air conditioner can also help keep pesky pollens
- Eliminate problem foods. If some of your hay fever symptoms
last all year, you may have a food allergy or sensitivity.
To find out, stop eating milk, eggs, wheat, chocolate, corn,
oranges, rye, and oats -- all foods that can bring on allergy
symptoms -- for at least three weeks (three months in the
case of milk) to see if your symptoms go away.
- If pets are causing your allergies and you can't bear to
part with them, try keeping them outside -- or at least out
of the bedroom, where you spend a third of your life. This
will significantly reduce your exposure and ensure a good
night's rest. Also, ask a nonallergic friend or family member
to bathe your animals frequently, and dust and vacuum their
favorite areas often.
- If dust mites are causing your agony, clean your mattresses,
pillows, and upholstery regularly; these are favorite hiding
places for mites. Put away that down comforter and consider
getting a hypoallergenic pillow and encasing your mattress
- Finally, keep your immune system healthy by managing stress,
getting enough sleep, eating a healthful diet, and exercising
Source: 1999 Consumer Health
Interactive and Consensus Health Corporation