Think that allergies flare up only in spring? Not so. With the help of Cape Town-based paediatric allergist and paediatrician, Dr Sarah Karabus we get to grips with allergens and how to stay safe over the season.
What is an allergy?
An allergy is a reaction to an allergen. Allergens are particles your body considers foreign. When your body encounters an allergen, your immune system goes into overdrive, releasing antibodies – substances that identify and go after bacteria, viruses, and other illness-causing organisms. Antibodies attack the allergens, which leads to the release of chemicals such as histamine into the blood. These chemicals activate the symptoms associated with an allergy such as a runny nose and watery eyes.
What triggers an allergy?
In summer, the biggest trigger is pollen – the tiny grains released into the air by trees, grasses, flowers and weeds. Pollen allergy is commonly called hay fever. Medically, it is known as seasonal allergic rhinitis.
Pollens are present all year round but in summer the pollen count is much higher which means more severe allergy symptoms. Pollen can also travel far distances, which is bad news for allergy sufferers. Bees, wasps and other insects can carry pollen too. Their stings and bites can also cause life-threatening allergic reactions.
Reactions can also be triggered by mould, dust mites, pet dander, cockroaches, and birds. Throw in heat, humidity and air pollution and you’re in for an allergy disaster.
Signs and symptoms
Because they have similar symptoms, many people confuse a cold with an allergy. A cold lasts between five to ten days and is associated with fever and yellow or green mucus. Allergies, however, lasts longer than ten days and have symptoms which are present all the time such as:
• Stuffy, runny nose with clear, thin nasal mucus.
• Constant sneezing.
• Nose wiggling, wiping or pushing up of the nose (also called the “allergic salute”).
• Itchy nose, throat and palate.
• Red, itchy, watery eyes.
For some, symptoms can go beyond a sniffle and sneeze. Left untreated, allergies can cause dental issues, nasal crease, dark circles under the eyes, and an overall tired and droopy appearance. It can also make asthma symptoms worse, cause irritability, concentration troubles, and poor sleeping.
Managing your allergy
First, avoid whatever it is that’s triggering your allergies. If you are unsure about the causes, ask your doctor for an allergy test. While it is impossible to completely avoid allergy triggers, there are general preventative measures that may be helpful in easing some of the symptoms:
• Stay indoors on hot, windy days and whenever the pollen count is high.
• Keep the windows and doors shut to keep allergens out.
• Close the curtains to keep the sun out and temperature down. Heat and humidity can worsen allergy symptoms.
• Make use of an air purifier.
• Avoid freshly cut grass.
• Clean your home often. Pollen, mould and dust can collect on surfaces.
• Wear a mask when cleaning around the house, vacuuming and mowing the lawn.
• Wash bedding, carpets and rugs regularly to eliminate dust mites and other allergens.
• Shower and wash your hair after being outdoors.
• Wear wraparound sunglasses to prevent pollen from getting into your eyes.
• Apply petroleum jelly around the edge of your nostrils to stop pollen from entering your nasal passages.
• Do not smoke or surround yourself with secondhand smoke as this can irritate the lining of your nose, eyes and throat.
• Keep pets out of the house and bathe them regularly. Pollen and other allergens can cling to their fur.
• If you are travelling, choose a destination with fewer allergens, e.g. the beach.
• Avoid spending time in areas abundant in insects. If you find yourself in this environment, avoid wearing strong scents and bright clothing. Cover sweet foods and drinks so that you don’t attract bees and other stinging insects.
If all else fails, try over-the-counter and prescription medications:
• Antihistamines: to reduce sneezing, sniffling and itching by blocking the effects of histamine in the body.
• Nasal sprays: to clear mucus out of the nasal passageways to relieve congestion and prevent inflammation. Some nasal sprays can also stop your body from releasing histamine before it triggers allergy symptoms such as an itchy, runny nose and sneezing.
• Nasal irrigation: this involves using a syringe to fill the nasal cavities with a saline solution (a mix of salts and water), which reduces crusting and dryness.
• Eye drops: for the relief of itchy, watery eyes.
Remember: Always read the packaging labels as some medications can only be used safely for a few days. Some can also make you drowsy (among other side effects). Before you use these medications however, be sure to check with your doctor first. This will ensure that you get the best product to suit your needs.
If these medications don’t help or if your symptoms interfere with your quality of life, your doctor may recommend:
• Leukotriene receptor antagonists: to block the chemical reaction that causes inflammation in the airways.
• Allergy immunotherapy (also known as allergy shots): changes the way your immune system reacts to allergens by reducing your sensitivity to them. Administered as an injection or oral drops.
Reviewed by Dr Sarah Karabus, paediatric allergist and paediatrician
BootsWebMD. Summer allergies. Last reviewed: 12 May 2014. Available from: http://www.webmd.boots.com/allergies/guide/summer-allergies?page=3 Accessed: w/c 30 November 2015
WebMD. Summer allergies. Last reviewed: 17 October 2014. Available from: http://www.webmd.com/allergies/guide/summer-allergies?page=2 Accessed: w/c 30 November 2015
ACAAI. The Ugly Truth About Summer Allergies. Last reviewed: 11 June 2014. Available from: http://acaai.org/news/ugly-truth-about-summer-allergies Accessed: w/c 30 November 2015
Mercola.com. How to Address Allergies and Asthma Symptoms as “Worst Allergy Season Ever” Begins. Last reviewed: 18 April 2013. Available from: http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2013/04/18/allergy-season.aspx Accessed: w/c 30 November 2015