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By Dr. Thomas Lane, FACP
You’re not alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 50 million Americans suffer from allergies each year. Allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the United States.
Allergies occur when your immune system overreacts to otherwise harmless substances. These substances are called allergens. The immune system’s job is to protect us against invading organisms that can make us ill. In the case of allergies, your immune system mistakes a harmless substance for an invader. It responds by producing immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies. These antibodies travel to cells that release histamine and other chemicals, and these cause the allergic reaction. Plant pollen, dust, foods, insect bites and mold are common allergens.
In June and July, grass pollen is the airborne allergen most likely to cause allergic reactions. Carried on summer breezes, pollen enters our eyes and is inhaled into our noses, airways and lungs. Symptoms of an allergic reaction include red, itchy eyes; nasal congestion; cough and sometimes wheezing. Unfortunately, symptoms typically worsen with age, because pollen allergies get more severe the longer you’re exposed to them.
The best way to try to tame summer allergies is to avoid the pollen in the first place. Keep the windows of your house closed and use air conditioning, especially in the room where you sleep, to reduce pollen counts. Mowing the lawn sends grass pollen flying up into the air. Have someone else take over that chore.
Over-the-counter antihistamines may relieve symptoms. Many allergy medications, including a popular steroid nasal spray, are now available without a prescription. They’re quite effective, and generic versions are inexpensive.
If you try over-the-counter products, and you’re still miserable, you may want to see a physician who specializes in allergies. He or she will perform skin tests to see what substances you’re allergic to, and then administer a series of injections containing increasing amounts of those substances to try to develop other antibodies that reduce the allergic reaction. Some people see improvement after these treatments.
Finally, as we spend more time outside, we’re more likely to encounter bees. If you or your child is allergic to bee stings, be sure you always have an epinephrine plunger with you. Seek medical help right away for any severe allergic reaction.
Dr. Thomas Lane is director of the Division of General Medicine and Geriatrics at The Hospital of Central Connecticut.
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