A patient I'll call Susan came to me recently for itchy eyes, runny nose and a sore throat. These had all been going on for several weeks and she suspected some type of infection. What she learned from our visit was that small irritations, caused by pollen, were the common thread to her symptoms.
We finally got substantial rainfall in March. All that rain means lots of blooming flowers and the allergens that go with them. The good news is there are many things you can do, and a few that we can help you with, to make spring more enjoyable.
Most of the symptoms result from the "itis," a Latin term for inflammation. Your body senses these foreign proteins and calls out the white blood cells to fight this invasion, hence symptoms similar to an infection. The body makes mucous to smother and push these particles out as snot—or bring it up into the throat to be swallowed and digested by the stomach. The body also makes the blood flow increase to the affected areas, causing red itchy eyes and a sense of swelling. If pollen gets deeper into the body, this inflammation can cause asthma.
Treatments consist of several approaches. At the front end is reducing exposure. Simple measures help, such as keeping your windows closed and not bringing flowers into the home. Changing the filter on the house furnace may also help, as would a HEPA filter and keeping animals out of bedrooms. Routine dusting (with a mask if you are the allergic one) can also keep mites and allergens to a minimum.
The second line of simple treatment consists of removing the offending agents. Spray bottles that consist primarily of salt water in a fancy plastic container are available over the counter. A cheap substitute is to take a teaspoon of salt in a warm glass of water (a pinch of baking soda makes it sting less), and then pour it onto your hand—and suck it up—one nostril at a time. This same solution can be used as a gargle—to clean the throat of allergens, and the mucous your body makes in fighting it.
Finally, medications that reduce inflammation (anti-inflammatories) may help. Many "anti-allergy" pills come over the counter, and names such as Benadryl or diphenhydramine bring sleepy memories to people. More recent "non-sedating" allergy medicines have become available without a prescription; Claritin, Allegra and Zyrtec are common non-drowsy options. Other over-the-counter preparations include Sudafed and other vasoconstrictive medications that reduce swelling. There are a few medications that still require a doctor visit. These consist primarily of steroids (strong anti-inflammatory medicine) in a solution that is used to spray in the nose.
As my visit with Susan was concluding she asked me a more challenging question. She has read that spring is occurring earlier. What effect would this have on her allergies? I had a tougher time answering this one. True, climate change is being noted by botanists who see earlier blooms. Yes, climatologists are noting warmer climates and altered rainfall (droughts and deluges), but how will this affect allergies? For now, I recommended Susan deal with her allergens in the usual manner and contact her health provider if things change.
Dr. Pepper practices family medicine at the Martinez Health Center.
Healthy Outlook is written by the professional staff of Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department. Send questions to series coordinator Dr. David Pepper at email@example.com. For more health information, go to www.cchealth.org.