Allergies: Everything you need to know
Do you suffer from allergies? Here's how to cope with your symptoms
Allergies: Nature’s way of punishing you for being so happy that Spring has arrived. Well, not really. But it can seem so to millions of us who are allergic to things floating in the springtime air.
Allergies, and it’s more serious cousin asthma, are particularly irksome to walkers. We want to be outside and moving, enjoying the return of flowers, grass, leaves, and warmth. And we want to be able to do so without sneezing, coughing, or getting congested. We’re here to tell the truth: Allergies can’t be cured. But by knowing how they work, and actively managing the condition, there’s absolutely no reason for allergies to cause you to skip a walk. Promise.
To help you, we’ve answered many of the most common questions about allergies. Read this,and breathe easy again.
What exactly is an allergy?
In simplest terms, it’s when your immune system mistakenly believes that something harmless that has touched or entered your body is dangerous, and goes on the attack. Let’s explain. Immune cells in your bloodstream called lymphocytes constantly scan your body for bacteria, viruses, pollens, chemicals, and other microscopic organisms that might cause harm. Most foreign particles are usually (and correctly) determined to be harmless. But once the system detects something it deems harmful, two things occur: First, a “memory” is created so the immune system will know to attack it if it returns again; then, it sets out to destroy the invader. The attack is no different from how your body attacks a cold or flu germ, and the byproducts are the same as well: inflammation, mucus, coughing, and watery eyes.
Allergies occur when your body tags nondangerous items as dangerous. The vast majority of allergens are airborne, and include dust, pollen, mold, and pet dander. When they enter your body, your immune system responds by going on the offensive.
Are allergies and asthma the same thing?
Although they seem to go together, they are different diseases, though on the same continuum, with asthma at the far end, and allergies somewhere in the middle. Asthma is a chronic lung disease in which airways react to some trigger by becoming inflammed, filling up with mucus, and getting squeezed by the muscles that surround them.
The result: coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. An allergy can trigger an asthma attack, but so can other things. Asthma is the more serious condition, since an attack can dangerously restrict your breathing capability. Roughly 500 Canadians die every year from asthma-related causes. Allergies tend to create cold-like symptoms
that are annoying, but usually less dangerous.
How prevalent are allergies?
Scarily so. An estimated one in five North Americans has allergies, which would make it among the most prevalent chronic diseases on the continent. As noted, most allergies are caused by airborne substances and affect the respiratory system; the rest are caused by food, drugs, chemicals, and insects, and can affect the digestive system, skin or eyes. Overall numbers seem to have skyrocketed since the early 1980s, particularly among children.
How do I know if I have a seasonal allergy?
The symptoms are pretty clear: sneezing; a clear, runny nose; itchy or dry eyes; headache; stuffy, inflammed sinuses. The only question is whether it’s a cold or an allergy. Colds come on more slowly, and often what comes out of your nose is white or greenish. Allergies come on quickly, and usually at the same time each year, or after a long time outside during allergy season.
To be certain, doctors have developed extensive and accurate tests for allergies. If you think you have one, ask to be tested. It’s the best way to know for sure.
Why do they occur so often in Spring?
The very same thing that’s responsible for spring’s beauty is also responsible for the misery of millions of Canadians. That would be pollen, the microscopic round or oval grains that plants use in lieu of sex to reproduce.
Don’t blame flowers. Instead, look to the plain-Jane plants— trees, grasses, and weeds. Flowering plants depend on insects to carry their heavier pollen around, while run-of-the-mill plants produce small, light, dry pollen granules that are custom-made for wind transport.
And can they travel! Scientists have found ragweed pollen 640km out at sea and 3 km high in the air. That’s why simply clearing the area around your home of offending plants isn’t going to do any good. Plus, there’s the sheer quantity of pollen: A single ragweed plant can generate a million grains a day.
Among North American plants, weeds are the most prolific springtime producers of allergenic pollen, with ragweed the major culprit; others include sagebrush, redroot pigweed, lamb’s-quarters, Russian thistle (tumbleweed), and English plantain.
Grasses and trees, too, are significant sources of allergenic pollens. Although more than 1,000 species of grasses grow in North America, only a few produce highly allergenic pollen. They include timothy grass, Kentucky bluegrass, Johnson grass, Bermuda grass, redtop grass, orchard grass, and sweet vernal grass. Trees that produce allergenic
pollen include oak, ash, elm, hickory, pecan, box elder, and mountain cedar.
Can an allergy be cured?
Usually not. Once your body marks something as harmful, there’s no simple way to change that. The one cure that’s been proven effective is called immunotherapy, and involves getting a shot once or twice a week for six or more months. It works by progressively desensitizing your immune system to the allergen. Few people are willing to go
through such a challenging and expensive process, however. Instead, we rely mostly on medicines and methods that reduce the impact of allergies.
Should I be more worried about allergens inside or outside my house?
That’s a great question. Indoor air pollution is often much worse than outdoor air pollution, and many people develop allergies to the molds, dust mites, pet dander, and other microscopic pollutants so common inside buildings. But we also know that pollen is the #1 cause of spring allergies. We say, don’t “worry”—be proactive about allergies. If you have one, figure out what is causing it. Once you diagnose what the allergen is, you can best figure out how to minimize its presence in your life, whether it resides indoors or outside.
What are pollen counts and how can they help me?
New technologies allow us to quickly and accurately determine how many grains of a specfic pollen or mold are found in a set volume of air (usually a cubic meter) over 24 hours. This information, known as the pollen count, is extremely useful to people with allergies, since it tells them if they are more or less likely to have allergic reactions if they stay outside.
The Asthma Society of Canada's Asthma Today Widget is a decidedly 21st-century tool for people with asthma. Is is a small application that resides on your computer and gives you up-to-date weather, air quality and asthma news.
What allergy medications are available and how do allergy medicines work?
The most common allergy medicines are antihistamines. These do exactly what their name says: they counteract the effects of histamine, the inflammatory chemical released by your body during an allergic reaction. In effect, antihistamines shut down an allergic reaction by turning off your immune system’s response.
Other common allergy medicines include decongestants to unclog your nose and sinuses; and anticholinergic sprays, prescription medicine that shuts down mucus production. For people who suffer from severe reactions, doctors prescribe emergency medications like epinephrine.
There are also other medicines for asthma. Most common are bronchodilators, which are inhalers that help open up the airways in your lungs.
Are there any other remedies that work?
Many alternative healing practitioners claim they have the secret to managing allergies—including herbs, foods, relaxation techniques, acupuncture, and homeopathic medicines—but none have compelling support (though some might be more effective for asthma). Overall health certainly helps, as does maintaining a healthy weight. The best remedy is being keenly selfaware. Know what triggers your allergies, keep the right response medications available, and do all you can to keep your immune system otherwise healthy, with an emphasis on a healthy, natural diet.
What can I do to keep on walking, even if I have allergies?
First, get an accurate diagnosis of what causes your allergies; it’s so much easier to avoid a few specific allergens than to worry about everything that’s out there. If the allergens are within your house, get cleaning! If your allergies are due to outdoor pollens or molds, talk to your doctor about whether it makes sense for you to take antihistamines prior to an outdoor walk. Also pay close attention to pollen counts and their cycles. Most plants release their pollen early in the morning, and they are often most prevalent in the air around noon, making evening the best time to walk.
Finally, study up on what makes your immune system healthiest (Pssst! The answer is plenty of fresh produce, exercise, and effective stress management), and follow through. Research clearly shows that having a weak immune system increases your chances of allergic reactions or asthma attacks.
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Walk It Off (Reader's Digest Canada), Spring 2011