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Health

Shut those windows; allergy season is here

| Friday, March 16, 2018, 11:30 a.m.
Allison Freeman
Allison Freeman
A walker passes a dandelion while walking at Memorial Park in New Kensington on Thursday, May 14, 2015.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
A walker passes a dandelion while walking at Memorial Park in New Kensington on Thursday, May 14, 2015.

Just when the weather is starting to get warmer and leaves are returning to trees and flowers are pushing up from the soil, the spring allergy season rears its head.

And for many that means sneezing and itchy eyes. In fact, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America estimates that 50 million people in the U.S. have some sort of nasal allergy.

“I tend to see more patients in the spring,” says Dr. Allison Freeman, an allergist with the Allegheny Health Network. “That's because in Pennsylvania, we're blessed with a number of trees.”

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation says pollen is the most common culprit of an allergy attack, especially this time of year. In the fall, it's ragweed. Also, certain species of trees such as birch, cedar and oak produce highly allergic pollen.

In its ranking of the 100 most allergy-challenged cities, the foundation placed Pittsburgh 30th, just below Birmingham, Ala., and above Albany, N.Y. Jackson, Miss., topped the list, while San Jose, Calif. ,was at the bottom.

So what actually is an allergy? Simply put, it is a specific reaction of a person's immune system to a foreign — and mostly harmless — substance called an allergen. The immune system will then go on attack by releasing large amounts of antibodies that trigger reactions like sneezing or coughing. It is also believed allergies are inherited.

“I have allergy patients of all ages,” says Dr. Merritt Fajt, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of pulmonary allergy and critical care medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School. “People can have seasonal or year-round allergies.”

When a person wants to find out what kind of allergy they have, then allergy testing can be done as a blood or skin test. With a skin test, a person's forearm or back is pricked with a small portion of the allergen. If that person is allergic to the substance, then a bump or red spot will appear usually in as little as 20 minutes.

Results from blood tests take longer and are often done when the patient is on medication that could interfere with results from a skin assessment.

Allergy-related doctor visits, medication and other factors contribute more than $18 billion in annual health care costs, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

There is no cure for airborne allergies. But there are a number of ways to treat the symptoms from over-the-counter medicine to immunotherapy — a shot or a pill. Fajt says when over-the-counter medicine and nasal sprays do not bring relief to the sufferer, then she will suggest immunotherapy as an option.

Immunotherapy can provide long-term relief even after treatment is stopped. It also can prevent the development of new allergies.

Allergy shots usually involve receiving injections with increasing amounts of allergens two or three times a week, usually for a three- to six-month period. Once the effective dose is reached then the patient enters a maintenance phase, and there will be longer periods between shots ranging from two to four weeks, according to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology. The effectiveness of the shots in most cases is related to the length of the treatment program and the allergen dosage.

With pills — called sublingual immunotherapy — treatment can be done in the home. This sort of therapy was only recently approved in the United States, Freeman says.

In a lot of cases, however, over-the-counter-medication can bring short-term relief to sufferers. But, it's important not to use a decongestant nasal spray for more than four days. Otherwise, permanent damage could be done to the nose, she says.

Also avoid long-term usage of over-the-counter decongestants in pill form. These medications can raise a person's blood pressure because they can act as an upper. They also interrupt sleep.

The best way to avoid seasonal allergies is to avoid the triggers. While this may be hard to do outside, the sufferer can keep windows closed at night. Or when driving, keep the car windows closed.

“I recommend avoidance,” Fajt says. “Don't keep your windows open because the pollen will come in.”

Suzanne Elliott is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at 412-872-2346, selliott@tribweb.com or via Twitter @41Suzanne.

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