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Your Health

Ah-choo! Welcome to spring allergy season

Here's the skinny on fats we eat

As allergy sufferers know, the arrival of spring brings much more than April showers and May flowers. It also brings sneezes, watery eyes, and other cold-like symptoms.

It's something a growing number of people over age 60 confront for the first time. It used to be if people didn't have seasonal allergies when young, doctors thought they were unlikely to develop them later. This is no longer true.

Allergist Michael Foggs says he is seeing more older allergy patients for the first time. There are many theories on why older people are now more likely to develop allergies, but none are proven. It could be due to an allergy diagnosis being missed earlier, environmental changes in the air we breathe and food we eat, or something else altogether.

Hello, spring sneezes

Spring allergies, commonly called hay fever, have nothing to do with hay or fever. Rather, they are tied to pollen from grass, trees, or ragweed, and mold growing outdoors in fields and on dead leaves.

These pollens are hard to avoid. The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) says a single ragweed plant may release 1 million tiny pollen grains in just one day. There are even more mold spores growing everywhere.

What is an allergy?

Foggs, an allergist and president of the ACAAI, says all people have an allergy protein in their bodies and breathe in pollen and mold. Pollen and mold are forms of "allergens" which means they can trigger an allergic response in people who are sensitive to those allergens--about 25 percent of the population. An allergic response results when  a protein in the blood called immunoglobin E (rIgE) releases a chemical called histamine.

Histamine tightens small blood vessels of the nose, making fluids leak out into other tissues. This causes noses to run, eyes to water, and skin to itch and swell.

Diagnosing allergies

The first step in evaluating possible allergy symptoms is to see a doctor who will take a detailed history about your lifestyle, home, and work environment; eating habits, and other factors to search for clues as to which "allergen" may be causing your symptoms.

In some circumstances, skin testing may be recommended. This consists of placing small amounts of common allergens on different areas of your skin, usually on your forearm or back.  Over time, your skin will become red, swollen, and/or itchy in those areas where you are allergic.

Once you know what causes your allergies, your doctor may prescribe medication to reduce nasal congestion, sneezing, and itching. Allergy medications come in many different forms such as tablets, nasal sprays, eye drops, and liquid, depending on the drug. Sometimes allergy shots are recommended. 

The theory is that exposure to small amounts of the offending allergen over time will decrease your sensitivity and the severity of your allergic reaction and possibly eliminate it altogether.

Limit your exposure

Limiting exposure to the allergens also can help reduce symptoms. The ACAAI suggests the following methods for lessening your exposure to pollen and mold:

  • Keep windows closed and use air conditioning at home and in the car whenever possible.
  • Dry clothes, sheets, and towels in a dryer rather than hanging them outside, where they may collect pollen from the air.
  • Limit time outdoors from 5-10 a.m. when the air is most heavily saturated with pollen and mold.
  • Wear a pollen mask when mowing the lawn, raking leaves, or gardening.