When seasonal allergies strike, it’s all-out war for those who suffer, as their bodies’ defenses grow overly defensive. Flowering trees, ragweed and even Bermuda grass are common allergens in the Valley. Each affects an individual differently, if at all.
For sufferers, the immune system sees an allergen as an enemy, triggering the release of histamines, little chemical soldiers that rush to the front lines of the perceived skirmish, like the blood vessels in and around your nose and eyes, where pollen gets in. There they produce a weapon—mucus—causing tissues to swell and push the enemy out.
As histamines win battles, you lose the war, via a runny nose and itchy, watery eyes.
There are almost as many strategies to fight this battle as there are palo verde blossoms in spring. Some remedies are known to work, others are unproven, and the battlefield is littered with side effects.
1. Antihistamines prevent histamines from anchoring, and should be taken before allergens get in. Take them before allergy season starts and continuously during the season, says Dr. Jonathan Bernstein, an allergist at the University of Cincinnati. Common brands—Zyrtec, Allegra, Claritin— are available in generic form at lower cost. Some cause drowsiness (diphenhydramine and chlorpheniramine). Others don’t (cetirizine, desloratadine, fexofenadine, levocetirizine, loratadine). All have potential side effects, from dry mouth to vomiting and confusion, according to WebMD.
2. Steroid Nasal Sprays reduce inflammation at the battlefront. Common brands—Flonase, Nasacort and Nasonex—are available as generics. These “corticosteroids” have fewer side effects than antihistamines, the Mayo Clinic says.
3. Decongestants, such as pseudoephedrine, are more of a last resort. They may offer temporary relief but come with many side effects and should be used with caution if at all, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Caution: Some antihistamines also include decongestants. Read the labels. Also, antihistamines containing diphenhydramine (such as Benadryl) have additional side effects: Ingesting these for three years or more was linked to a 54 percent higher risk of dementia in a 2015 study in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. More study is needed to learn if the link is causal.
4. Immunotherapy is a long-term effort to build up your immunity to an allergen. Through shots or other medication over time, your body gets used to small amounts of exactly what a doctor has determined you are allergic to. Severe reactions are rare, but possible. According to the World Allergy Organization, studies show immunotherapy can be “highly effective” at reducing symptoms (up to 30 percent in one study) after three to four years of treatment, and for years after treatment ends.
5. Natural remedies are typically less rigorously researched, but are often touted. “Many herbs, especially in combination, are effective,” said Dr. Jennifer Gentry, who blends conventional and natural therapeutics at her Anthem naturopathic practice. Among Gentry’s favorites: nettle leaf, vitamin C and flavonoids.
Local bee pollen is said to work similar to immunotherapy, building up immunity to local pollens over time. “Allow at least a few months,” Gentry said.
She also finds value in salt rinses—running salt water through one nostril and out the other—and salt inhalers. “Saline solutions clean out the sinus, thin the mucus and act as an antimicrobial,” she said. Distilled or sterilized water should be used, the Mayo Clinic advises.
There is “some good evidence” that salt rinses can offer “modest improvement” of symptoms, according to the National Institutes of Health, which also says acupuncture and probiotics “may be helpful.”
Traditional physicians, and medical-advice sites like WebMD, say bee pollen and some other natural remedies have not been proven to work, cautioning also that they are not all free of side effects.
The Front Lines
Before allergens strike:
- Stay indoors on windy days.
- Close windows and doors.
- Shower to remove pollen after being outside.
- Use a HEPA-filter vacuum.
SOURCE: Mayo Clinic
Plan ahead for next year, Gentry advises, and start treatment before allergies kick in. Think of the body as a cup of water, filling with stress, toxins, nutritional deficiencies and more, she explained. “When allergy season hits, pollen is one more thing that fills up the cup. You cannot easily empty the cup when you are in the worst part of the season.”
What if drugs you’ve relied on stop working? “Our bodies can become tolerant to medications over time,” pharmacist Albert Szczebak at a Norterra-area CVS told In&Out during a particularly bad pollen outbreak two years ago. “Try an alternative.”
Gentry cautions against long-term pharmaceutical use, but she’s not against them when they’re the best approach. She looks for solutions to triggers, not just Band-Aids for symptoms. But every patient is different, and she says the solutions usually involve a mix of therapies that support the body’s natural ability to self-regulate.
“Use what you need,” she said. “If allergies are bad, why suffer?”
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