You may have heard the term "hay fever," but seasonal allergies, also known as seasonal allergic rhinitis, are triggered by several different types of pollen, but not by hay. When trees and grasses begin growing in the spring and early summer, they release light, powdery pollen that floats in the wind. If you're allergic to this pollen, it can result in sniffling, sneezing, wheezing, a runny nose, and itchy and watery eyes. For some people with asthma, pollen can also trigger an asthma attack.
Allergy triggers, or allergens, vary depending on the time of year. In late summer and early fall, weed pollen (especially from ragweed) and fungal spores are the main culprits. In the early spring, tree pollen is the usual cause, and in late spring and summer it's grass pollen that's the problem. As well, the specific allergens in the environment will vary with the geographical area.
So if you're an allergy sufferer, how can you enjoy the outdoors without experiencing unpleasant symptoms? Here are a few tips:
- Keep windows closed so pollens can't drift in. Air conditioning will keep you more comfortable in hot, humid weather. But don't forget that air conditioners also create the best conditions (damp and dark) for moulds to grow in your home. Do some spring cleaning, and do it regularly.
- If possible, stay inside when pollen counts are high (watch for these in weather reports) and on windy days when pollen and spores can get blown around. Avoid being outdoors in the early morning hours (between 5 am and 10 am), when pollen counts are usually highest.
- If you've been outside all day, remove all your clothing and put it aside to be laundered, and take a shower after coming home. This will prevent you from taking all that pollen to bed with you.
- Don't hang your laundry outside to dry – it can trap pollen and mould, bringing them inside. Use your dryer instead.
If these measures don't work, talk to your health care provider about what you can do if you're suffering from allergies. There are eye drops, nasal sprays, oral antihistamines and anti-allergy medications, sinus rinses, and even allergy shots that can be helpful in treating your specific allergy. Many treatments are available without a prescription, but others will need a prescription from your doctor. If you have asthma and have seasonal allergies, monitor your asthma closely and follow the action plan your doctor gives you.
Contact dermatitis is another kind of allergy, one that appears as a skin rash after you have touched some sort of allergen. One of the most common triggers of contact dermatitis in the great outdoors is poison ivy. The resin of the plant contains an oily substance called urushiol that's easily released and spread when the leaves are crushed, rubbed, or burned.
About 50% to 70% of people will react to poison ivy when they come into contact with it in nature.  Within 12 to 48 hours of exposure to this innocent-looking shrub, susceptible people will typically develop an itchy rash, starting as reddened skin, leading to bumps and blisters. After a few days, the blisters break and the oozing sores begin to crust over and heal.
Your best defense is to avoid contact with poison ivy plants. Learn to recognize them by their slightly glossy green leaves growing in groups of three – but their shape can vary. If you're in heavily wooded areas and it's impossible to avoid them, wear long sleeves, long pants, and gloves. Remember, the oils can cling to your family pet's fur, so be careful when handling your pet after spending time in wooded areas – a bath may be necessary.
What if you're unlucky enough to get some urushiol on you? First, try to wash it off right away. Even a running stream will do, but soap and water is best to keep the oil – and the rash – from spreading. The rash will usually go away on its own in a few days, but it can be uncomfortable in the meantime. Wet cold compresses can soothe the rash, while calamine lotion, witch hazel, or Burow's solution helps dry it out. Bathing in water prepared with colloidal oatmeal can also be soothing. Oral antihistamines can be helpful in controlling itchiness. See a doctor if the rash is severe, is on the face or genitals, covers a large area of the body, is oozing pus from blisters, or if you develop a fever. Prescription medications, such as antihistamines and corticosteroids, can help in such cases.
If you have severe allergies, you or your allergist might have considered allergy shots. But are all those needles worth it?
If you have severe allergies, you or your allergist might have considered "allergy shots" – officially called allergen immunotherapy. But are all those needles worth it? For some people, the answer is "yes."
Like a vaccination, immunotherapy allows you to gain "resistance" or immunity to the things to which you're allergic. That way, your body won't overreact when you're exposed to these triggers, or allergens, and your symptoms won't interfere as much in your daily activities.
However, the therapy might require patience on your part. Allergen immunotherapy is not a one-time injection, but rather a series of shots. It starts when a doctor or allergist injects a tiny amount of the allergen, and then increases the amount of allergen injected each week, depending on how sensitive you are. It can take 4 to 6 months of weekly injections to reach the amount that is needed for immunity, which is called the maintenance dose. This dose is given every 1 or 2 weeks, eventually spreading out to every 3 or 4 weeks, and continuing for 3 to 5 years or longer.
The good news?
After this process, people are usually less sensitive, so they don't need as much allergy medication – sometimes even none at all – and can enjoy their daily activities more easily. Allergy shots may be needed for people who are exposed to a lot of allergens (e.g., pollen, dust mites) and they can't avoid them, or when allergy symptoms are so severe that allergy medications can't control them. Experts suggest that immunotherapy is especially helpful for people with asthma because their attacks are often triggered by allergens.
Parent power fights asthma
Experts know that allergies and asthma are related. In fact, children with allergies often have asthma and a skin condition known as atopic dermatitis (eczema) as well. Since allergy triggers can lead to asthma attacks, effective control of allergies may lead to better control of asthma. Identifying these triggers and then avoiding them may help prevent asthma attacks. Asthma symptoms can also be brought on by such triggers as exercise, viral respiratory infections, and irritant fumes or gases. Unfortunately, asthma attacks cannot always be prevented.
Seeing your child have an asthma attack can be worrisome and very frightening, and can make you feel unsure of what to do the next time an attack occurs. Your child's doctor and pharmacist will recommend the right medication(s), doses and delivery devices for your child to treat an asthma attack. These can come in such forms as aerosol inhaler, turbuhaler, or diskus.
Learn how to give the medications properly and make sure you understand the "action plan" designed to best manage your child's asthma. An action plan includes a strategy to prevent an asthmatic attack by avoiding certain triggers and taking medication, as well as a rescue plan, which would be implemented should an asthmatic attack happen. Keep the action plan handy. It includes a list that takes you through specific steps to know when the asthma symptoms are worsening, what to do during an asthma attack, what dose of the medication to use, and when to seek medical attention. You might also be advised to use a peak flow meter at home, which measures how well the lungs are working.
Overall, the goal of asthma management therapy and the action plans is to have no asthma symptoms at all (i.e., no wheezing, coughing, or shortness of breath). You know you have reached good asthma management when your child does not miss any school as a result of asthma, can take part in normal physical activity, has good quality sleep that is uninterrupted by asthma symptoms, and does not have to take the rescue asthma medication 4 or more times per week.
If your child has an asthma attack, here's what to do:
- Act calm and confident and speak to the child reassuringly.
- Give the asthma-reliever medications at the very start of an attack as directed by your doctor.
- Try to determine what triggered the attack, and then remove it (or the child) from the area.
- Follow the action plan. If your child uses a peak flow meter, take a measurement to use with the action plan.
- If the attack is under control, you can relax. If it isn't, follow the action plan – you may need to call the doctor or get immediate medical attention.
You can be your child's most important ally in controlling asthma. Inform teachers, principals, school nurses, coaches, and babysitters of the asthma, what triggers it, and what should be done during an attack. As kids get older, you can teach them to manage their asthma themselves. And if you're a smoker, try to quit, or at least don't smoke in the house – smoke aggravates asthma symptoms.
A nose for relief?
Whether you're suffering from allergies or a cold or a chronic condition such as migraines, you may have more than one option for how your medication is administered. One increasingly common option is nasal sprays. This medication format is commonly used to relieve nasal congestion from colds or allergies or to treat migraine headaches. But there are also nasal sprays for osteoporosis and diabetes insipidus, and formulations are in the works for other conditions.
Nasal sprays deliver their medication by being absorbed through the nasal mucous membrane, the moist tissue that lines the nasal cavity. This tissue is rich in blood supply, so medications are absorbed into your body quickly.
Nasal sprays may also be a good option if you have difficulty swallowing pills, if your condition is accompanied by vomiting, or if you have a condition that requires you to take your medication without notice, in places where you may not have access to a glass of water.
Aside from the side effects that may be associated with the medication you are taking, nasal sprays are also sometimes associated with an unpleasant taste or irritation in the nose or throat. Some people also find the smell of some nasal sprays to be unpleasant or experience a "dripping" feeling at the back of the throats. These potential drawbacks can be offset by the fast action of nasal sprays. The important thing is to discuss your issues with your doctor or pharmacist because they can help you manage these effects and find the treatment that is right for you.
As with other medication forms, you should use nasal sprays only as directed.
When making a decision about treatment form, it's important to weigh the pros and cons as they apply to you, your condition and your life. But your doctor can help to make that decision.
If you're interested in learning more about nasal sprays, make an appointment with your doctor and ask them whether a nasal spray is right for you.