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Living with seasonal allergies

Spring has officially sprung, and here in the Four Corners that means breezy days and trees and grasses coming back to life after being dormant through the winter. This combination results in pollen floating through the air, sometimes for miles, and bringing with it allergy symptoms for many area residents. If you have allergies, your body’s immune system recognizes airborne allergens such as pollen as invaders and reacts by releasing antibodies and histamines into the blood system. Histamines are what cause the most common allergy symptoms including sneezing, a running nose, watering eyes, coughing and itching eyes.

Mancos family physician Maria Cornelius, M.D., says patients sometimes mistake allergy symptoms for those of a common cold.

“With a cold, you might also have a low-grade fever and feel more fatigued then if you have just allergies,” said Cornelius.

“When you have a cold, it’s hard to breathe because the nasal passages are full of mucus. With allergies, it’s hard to breathe because the nasal area is swollen. You feel pressure, but it’s for a different reason,” she said.

Patients who have asthma must be especially careful during allergy season.

“People can end up in the hospital because of allergy-triggered asthma,” said Cornelius said. Individuals prone to sinus infections are also at higher risk of developing that unpleasant condition if they also suffer with allergies.

“It becomes a plumbing issue,” said Cornelius. “There is a lot of nasal congestion and the bacteria says, ‘it’s party time,’ and you get an infection.”

If you know you have allergies, the first thing to pay attention to is lifestyle to minimize your exposure to airborne allergens. When pollen counts are particularly high, try to stay indoors during morning hours when levels tend to peak. (Go to www.pollen.com to check current conditions.)

“If it’s a super windy day, don’t go outside. After a rain is a good time to go outside because the rain pulls the pollen out of the air and makes it stick to the ground,” said Cornelius.

Keeping doors and windows closed can help keep allergens from entering your home. Vacuum and dust your house regularly during allergy season, and consider using an air purifier. If you have forced air heat or air conditioning in your home, invest in high-quality filters, and when using the heat or air conditioning in your car, adjust the control so that air recirculates.

“Otherwise, while you’re driving, all that pollen is coming into your car,” said Cornelius.

Cornelius recommends putting clothes in a hamper that’s not in the bedroom at the end of the day and showering in the evening instead of the morning.

“This rinses pollen off so you’re giving your immune system at least an eight-hour break,” she said. “Don’t hang bedding outside to dry because you’ll be sleeping on sheets coated with pollen.”

Using a nasal rinse or neti pot before bed can also help ease allergy symptoms.

“You can buy premade packets to use in a neti pot, but the cheapest way is to use it with body-temperature water and a teaspoon on non-iodized Morton’s salt,” said Cornelius.

There are several over-the-counter medications available that alleviate allergy symptoms. Antihistamines help with sneezing and a runny nose, decongestants (tablets and nasal sprays) relieve nasal congestion, and prescription eye drops may be useful if you have watery, itchy eyes.

“Decongestants may increase your blood pressure and cause problems with diabetes and glaucoma, so it’s usually better to use plain antihistamines for seasonal allergies,” said Cornelius, “but remember that antihistamines may cause drowsiness.”

Be sure to consult your doctor or pharmacist before using any of these non-prescription medications as they may interact with other drugs.

If lifestyle adjustments and over-the-counter remedies do not provide relief, see your health-care provider.

“Patients usually come in when they get so congested that they’re having a hard time breathing,” said Cornelius.

There are some prescription medications available that work well for seasonal allergies. “A common one is a nasal steroid,” said Cornelius.

She recommends that individuals who require prescription treatment for allergies begin taking them in February and continue until the first hard frost. “This way they’re not paying for medication through the winter when they don’t need it,” she said.

The same holds true for patients who have allergies year after year and treat them with home and over-the-counter remedies. “If you get right on it you’ll do better than it you wait until you’re totally swollen and the immune system is going 90 miles an hour,” said Cornelius.

If all else fails, Cornelius will very occasionally refer someone to an allergist for testing and treatment.

“I don’t recommend skin testing for most people with seasonal allergies. They’ll test positive for something, and being told you’re allergic to six trees and six grasses doesn’t accomplish much,” said Cornelius.

Southwest Health Notes is a public service feature provided by Southwest Memorial Hospital in Cortez, Colorado. The information provided herein is not intended as patient-specific medical advice or as a substitute for consultation with your personal health care provider.

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