This is a monthly column by Dr. Zahra Bardai in which she guides our path to well-being.
April showers bring May flowers has always been the mantra of those dreaming about the start of the spring-summer season. Unfortunately, for those suffering from seasonal allergies spring can be one of the most uncomfortable times of the year. April showers bring new growth and rejuvenation in the natural world. Earthy smells, budding trees and plants and pollinating insects are part of the process and lead to the presence of environmental allergen particles microscopically suspended in the air. While pollen is traditionally thought of as the main allergen in environmental allergies, other culprit particles are animal dander, dust mites, cockroaches and mold and dust from various sources. The result is the contact of allergens with the sensitive tissue of the eyes, nose and lungs, usually due to inhalation of the particles found in the air. For seasonal environmental allergy sufferers, trees, grass and other plant pollens can mean weeks of itchy watery eyes, sneezing attacks, runny nose, nasal congestion, cough, scratchy throat and exacerbation of pre-existing conditions like asthma and eczema.
Figuring out what is causing the environmental allergy symptoms may mean observing the seasonal variation in these symptoms. For instance, early spring symptoms can mean tree and grass allergy, while late summer and early fall symptoms are usually associated with ragweed (the most common pollen allergy in Ontario). An allergist can also do prick testing on the skin with serum containing pollen or dust and monitor the skin’s reaction to diagnose the offending allergen.
Treatment of environmental allergens is dependent largely on the severity of the problem. In the short term, over-the counter (OTC) oral anti-histamines taken over the course of the allergy season can often alleviate symptoms. If OTC medications are not helping, consulting with your doctor for use of prescription topical preparations of ocular antihistamine or nasal steroids can be helpful. Asthma and eczema sufferers may experience a worsening of their symptoms during allergy season, necessitating a change in their existing treatments. This should be done in consultation with the prescribing practitioner. In the long run, it may be necessary to consult with an allergist to start desensitization serum injections to the culprit allergen.
Other measures and precautions may also be helpful in controlling seasonal allergies. These include avoiding exposure to seasonal allergens during times when pollen counts are elevated (usually in the mid to late afternoon), as well as avoidance of areas containing tall grasses and weeds. Wearing protective sunglasses can help with eye symptoms. Keeping windows shut and using the air conditioner at home, work and in the car will help to keep pollen particles out. Seasonal maintenance of home furnace and air conditioner filters can also keep indoor allergen counts to a minimum.
Spring is a time full of new possibilities, including the possibility of minimally disruptive allergy symptoms – and that’s nothing to sneeze at!