Most of us welcome the onset of springtime and all that it brings to the area—warmer temperatures, outdoor activities, green grass, vegetation and summer vacations. But that same spring and summer weather can also bring itchy eyes, runny noses, sneezing and other allergy-related symptoms.
While spring and summer are welcome seasons for many, allergies can make life miserable and take the joy out of the season. An allergic reaction in simple terms is the body protecting itself from what it perceives as a foreign invader. Allergies are abnormal reactions to things that are typically harmless to most people. When you become allergic to something, your body’s immune system mistakenly believes that this substance is harmful to your body.
To protect the body, the immune system produces antibodies to that allergen. Those antibodies then cause certain cells in the body to release chemicals into the bloodstream; one of those chemicals is histamine. The histamine is what acts on a person’s eyes, nose, throat, lungs, skin and gastrointestinal tract and causes symptoms or an allergic reaction.
Allergic reactions may vary from mild, like a runny nose, to more severe, like difficulty in breathing. An example is asthma complications. Asthma is a chronic lung condition marked by difficulty in breathing, wheezing and/or coughing. There is no cure for asthma, although it can be effectively controlled with medication and other strategies. Allergies can cause airways to tighten and produce extra mucus.
The most common allergens are pollen, mold, animal dander and dust. Allergies that occur in the spring are sometimes caused by tree pollen. Allergies that occur in the summer are sometimes caused by grass pollen and allergies that occur in the fall are often due to ragweed. Mold is common where water collects—such as shower curtains, window moldings and basements. This can intensify during humid and rainy weather. Animal dander is a group of proteins found in the skin, saliva and urine of dogs and cats. You can be exposed by handling an animal or from house dust that contains dander. Dust can contain many allergens, including dust mites. Dust mites are tiny living creatures found in bedding, carpeting and upholstered furniture. They live on dead skin cells and other things found in house dust. Food allergies are the most common in infants and often disappear with age. Although some food allergies can be serious, many only cause annoying symptoms like itchy rash, stuffy nose or diarrhea.
It’s also important to be aware of medication allergies. Most people know which medications they are allergic to after their first exposure. But anyone can have an allergic reaction to anything—even something that has not caused symptoms in the past. So any time a medication is dispensed and the person shows evidence of a reaction, the individual should be considered allergic to that medication from that point on.
If your family doctor suspects an allergy, he may refer you to an allergist, a specialist in the treatment of allergies. But the most complete way to avoid allergies is to stay away from the substances that cause them. There are also allergy medications and shots that physicians may use.
If you’re taking medication, be sure to follow the directions carefully and make sure your regular doctor is aware of anything an allergist may give you. If you’ve been diagnosed with allergies, you have a lot of company. The National Institutes of Health report that allergic diseases in this country affect more than 50 million people. The good news is that experts are working hard to better understand allergies and to improve treatment options. tpw
Stephanie Lindstrom is a board-certified medical doctor with Methodist Medical Center. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Northern Illinois University and her medical license from the University of Illinois College of Medicine. She was board-certified in family practice in 2001. Methodist ranks in the top 10 percent for patient satisfaction for inpatient and emergency services, and the top 2 percent for outpatient services nationwide, based on 2004 Press Ganey data.