Authored by Ericka Valenzuela, DO, Primary Care Physician with Orange Regional Medical Group
Allergies, including hay fever, are the body’s response to airborne substances known as allergens (like pollens or dust) that get into our airways and are mistaken by the immune system as harmful agents.
The immune system mounts a very strong allergic response to these perceived invaders, and forms antibodies to attack the allergens. Those antibodies activate cells called mast cells that trigger the release of a chemical called histamine. Histamine, in turn, is what causes all of the symptoms commonly associated with allergies.
Listen in to Dr. Ericka Valenzuela discuss allergies on the radio:
What are some common symptoms of allergies?
Because it is primarily the mucus membranes of the eyes, nose and throat that swell up during an allergic reaction, that’s where the symptoms most readily present themselves. You may notice:
- Red and watery eyes
- Persistent itchiness in the eyes, nose and the back of the throat
- Increased mucus produced
- Stuffy nose
In some severe cases, allergy sufferers may experience some sweating, headaches, sinus pressure and tiredness. Some people also experience irritability. And, who wouldn’t be a little irritable with endlessly runny, itchy nose and throat?
How do we treat allergies?
You might recognize the chemical name histamine from the term “antihistamine.” Antihistamines are used to defend against the creation of histamine and to alleviate the symptoms it causes. Antihistamines come in tablets and sprays and are highly effective at relieving the symptoms of allergies. There are also prescription antihistamine eye drops, which some patients use to complement tablets if their symptoms are especially pronounced or persistent.
The second agent I recommend in some cases is nasal corticosteroid sprays. I typically prescribe these when allergy season is coming on, and I know a patient is going to need something long term. This is important, because the medication needs to have time to build up and affect your system. Once that happens, though, they are very effective in treating the inflammation or the swelling that can occur.
Are there preventative steps I can take?
Know the pollen count: Knowing the pollen count day to day is a great start. There are websites you can access, apps for your devices and reports on television that will tell you what the daily and weekly pollen count is going to be. When you know the pollen count is going to be high, you can take measures like avoiding the outdoors, and keeping windows closed when you’re home.
If you do venture outdoors, try to keep your hair covered, and remember to change your clothing once you return home. Pollens get easily transferred onto our bed linens, our pillows, our couches. Washing your hair and showering before bed, even changing your bed linens more frequently during allergy season, are great ways to keep from exacerbating allergy symptoms.
Immunotherapy: Severe allergy sufferers may consider immunotherapy, which is typically offered by ear, nose and throat doctors. It is very effective, but requires a long course of treatment, so patients do have to be committed to the process. Basically, a patient’s body is exposed to very low counts of allergen triggers.
Over time, the body learns that these are not harmful substances, but normal airborne substances that do not require such a strong defensive response. The process can take up to two years and longer, but patients have great success with it and get improved symptoms; even no symptoms in some cases.
If you are a longtime sufferer of seasonal allergies, or if you suspect you may have developed them, you can always consult with your family doctor to have your symptoms assessed.
Misdiagnosed, Self-diagnoses – Seek Medical Attention
I often get patients, who come in around this time of year, who are under the impression that they’ve been suffering from a long, persistent cold or sinus infection. They say they’ve tried every over-the-counter remedy, but nothing’s worked.
With a careful exam and a look back at their history, and especially with the prevalence of allergens in the Hudson Valley this time of year, I can usually discern that it is allergies and not a cold. Allergies very often present like a cold – the runny nose, the itchy throat.
The itchy, red and watery eyes can also be tricky with kids. Parents sometimes mistake those symptoms for common pink eye, also known as viral conjunctivitis, and keep kids home from school thinking that what is a simple case of allergies is really this contagious condition. Both of these are pretty common misdiagnosed self-diagnoses, so it’s always best to check your symptoms with your family doctor.
Orange Regional Medical Group is a great place to start with an appointment. Our Urgent Care facility at the Orange Regional Medical Center in Middletown can also help you get relief from your seasonal allergy symptoms, just walk in – no appointment needed!
About Dr. Ericka Valenzuela
Dr. Valenzuela, a Board-certified Family Medicine physician, treats the whole family, including newborns, toddlers, school aged children/teenagers and adults. Dr. Valenzuela received her medical degree from Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, MO and finished her Residency in North Carolina at one of the University of North Carolina residency programs in Family practice in 2007. She has been practicing medicine for 11 years and likes educating her patients on preventing disease.