Allergy Season: The Dreaded Yellow Haze

Itchy, watery eyes. Sneezing. Nasal congestion. Yep, it’s that time of the year again: spring allergy season. I stepped outside yesterday to grab the morning newspaper and our cars were coated with a yellow sheen. Pollen – ugh.

Those of you based in the mid-Atlantic or southeastern part of the United States know what we are in for – several weeks of this yellow haze, making it difficult to be outdoors just as we are yearning to bust outside after a long, drawn out winter. We were finally getting over a rather nasty flu season and now we have to deal with this? Doesn’t seem fair.

Prevention: Limiting exposure to allergens

Fret not as there are some things you can do to lessen the blow of seasonal allergies. After all, no one wants to be stuck inside as spring finally awakens, beckoning us to come play outside and bask in the sunshine and warm breeze. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America recommends the following actions to help reduce allergic reactions to pollen:

  • Limit your outdoor activities when pollen counts are high. This will reduce your exposure to pollen and other allergens and reduce your symptoms. Your local newspaper and/or TV news station website usually have the daily pollen counts or you can visit the Weather Channel and use their Allergy Tracker.

 

  • Keep windows closed during pollen season and use central air conditioning with a HEPA filter attachment. This applies to your home as well as your vehicle. Removing as much of the allergen as possible is key to preventing or reducing your symptoms.

 

  • Start taking allergy medicine before pollen season begins. Most allergy medicines work best when taken this way. This helps prevent your body from releasing histamine and other chemicals that cause your symptoms. Consider it a preemptive strike and one of your best defenses against the offending allergens.

 

  • Bathe and shampoo your hair daily before going to bed. This will remove pollen from your hair and skin and keep it off your bedding. If you typically shower in the morning or prefer not to wash your hair every day, then consider at least brushing or combing your hair before bed (away from your bedroom) to reduce the pollen that does make it onto your bedding. You may also want to shake out clothes worn during outdoor activities if you don’t want to run a load of laundry every day.

 

  • Wash bedding in hot, soapy water once a week. This will help remove any pollen that does make it onto your sheets. And whether washing your sheets or your normal laundry for the week, be sure to dry items in a dryer, not on an outdoor line. The goal is to eliminate exposure to pollen, especially during peak blooming season.

 

  • Wear sunglasses and a hat. This will help keep pollen out of your eyes and off your hair. This can help you avoid having to wash your hair every day. Just be sure to brush off your hat outside to avoid bringing pollen indoors.

 

  • If you have pets that spend a lot of time outdoors, be sure to brush them or even give them a quick rinse to help remove pollen and other allergens before they come inside for the night.

 

Treatment: When prevention isn’t enough

Preparation and prevention are the best approaches to surviving allergy season, but if you do find yourself suffering, there are several over-the-counter and prescription medicines that may help reduce your symptoms. Note: Please be sure to read all medication packaging and/or consult with your health care provider before taking any new medications, either prescription or over the counter.

Antihistamines come in pill, liquid or nasal spray form. They can relieve sneezing and itching in the nose and eyes. They also reduce a runny nose and, to a lesser extent, nasal stuffiness. They include over the counter options such as Claritin, Allegra and Zyrtec as well as prescription options such as Xyzal and Clarinex.

Decongestants are available as pills, liquids, nasal sprays or drops. They help shrink the lining of the nasal passages and relieve nasal stuffiness. Decongestant nose drops and sprays should only be used on a short-term basis though as they can have a rebound effect and cause more congestion. Some common over the counter decongestants include Afrin (nasal spray) and Sudafed (pill).

Nasal corticosteroids are a type of nasal spray. They reduce inflammation in the nose and block allergic reactions. They are the most effective medicine type for allergic rhinitis because they can reduce all symptoms, including nasal congestion, and have few side effects. There are several options available over the counter including Flonase, Nasacort, and Nasonex.

Leukotriene receptor antagonists block the action of important chemical messengers (other than histamine) that are involved in allergic reactions. The most common option is Singulair, but it does require a prescription.

Some people with pollen allergy do not get complete relief from medications. They may be candidates for immunotherapy, or long-term treatment that can help prevent or reduce the severity of allergic reactions. The most common treatment is allergy shots; however, there are newer therapies including tablets that are placed under the tongue for 1 to 2 minutes and then swallowed.

For those who prefer a more natural approach to dealing with sinus symptoms, consider a nasal irrigation system such as a Neti pot. The basic explanation of how the Neti pot works is that it thins mucus and helps flush it out of the nasal passages. It involves the use of a saline mixture that you pour into one nostril, that flows through your nasal cavity and out the other nostril. In studies, people suffering from daily sinus symptoms found relief from using the Neti pot or other nasal irrigation system daily. Neti pots are available over-the-counter at many drug stores, health food stores, and online retailers.

If you are not sure what the best treatment approach is for your allergy symptoms, make an appointment to discuss it with your health care provider. Although seasonal allergies may be a part of life, they don’t have to stop you from enjoying the beauty of spring and its outdoor pleasures.

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Prevention and Intervention – Focus on the Flu Vaccine

The outer ring of the Wheel of Health focuses on Professional Care, which is just as important as the areas of self-care I have discussed in previous posts. Maintaining optimal health includes seeking routine preventive medical care such as annual physical exams, recommended cancer screenings (e.g., mammogram, colonoscopy) and vaccinations.

You can find the latest recommendations for adult preventive care on the US Preventive Services Task Force website.  I highly encourage you to review the recommendations for your age and sex and discuss them with your healthcare provider. However, there is one recommendation I want to focus on for this post and that is the annual influenza vaccination, better known as the flu shot.

As a public health professional, I am often befuddled by the level of disagreement over getting vaccinated against the flu. I see friends debating it on Facebook. Some get the shot every year, others have never gotten it and never will. I have had friendly debates within my own family about the importance of annual vaccination. I agree with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommendation which is routine annual influenza vaccination for all persons aged ≥6 months who do not have contraindications. That last part is important – there are some individuals who cannot and should not receive the vaccination. But for most of us, there is no reason not to take this simple step to protect yourself from a potentially serious and sometimes fatal illness.

If you have any access to mainstream media, you are likely very aware of the toll that the flu has taken on communities across the country this year. This flu season is the worst in nearly a decade and we are not out of the woods yet.  Children and adults alike are getting sick, being hospitalized and dying – yes, dying – from the flu and its complications. I know several people who have had the flu and developed pneumonia, requiring hospital stays and heavy-duty antibiotics in order to recover.

I know there are some myths and incorrect beliefs circulating about the flu shot. Some people think they will get the flu if they are vaccinated (they won’t – if they get sick, they were likely exposed before they received the vaccine). Others argue that it is not worth getting vaccinated if the vaccine is not a good match to the virus strains that are circulating. It is difficult to get an exact match of the virus strain each season, as vaccine production must begin months before the flu virus presents itself. However, even if the vaccine is not an exact or even a good match, getting vaccinated will help reduce the risk of flu-associated complications that often require hospitalization. It can also make your illness milder if you do get sick.

Some people claim that they have never gotten the flu shot and have never gotten the flu, thus, they believe they are not susceptible. The flaw in that argument is that the flu virus strain changes every year so it’s likely they will eventually be exposed to a strain that does cause them to fall ill – especially if they decline to be vaccinated. That is why annual vaccination against the flu is so important. The flu is not simply a “bad cold” that someone can weather through. It is a serious illness that should not be taken lightly.

If you’re still not convinced to get vaccinated for your own protection, please consider doing so to protect the people around you, including those who are more vulnerable to serious flu illness, like babies and young children, older people, and people with certain chronic health conditions. If you haven’t yet been vaccinated and are now willing to do so, it’s not too late. I encourage you to act fast though as flu shots are running low due to the heavy flu season.  You can use the Flu Vaccine Finder tool on the CDC website to see where vaccine is still available in your area. The flu vaccine is typically covered by most health insurance plans and many pharmacies offer the flu shot at reduced cost for those who don’t have insurance.

For more information about the flu and how to protect yourself, please visit the CDC website.