Many people suffer from nasal symptoms that are often attributed to allergies. With our mild winter, the early warm temperatures, and the recent wind, the allergy season has kicked off early. So how do you tell if you have a regular, run of the mill cold, or if it’s something more, like seasonal outdoor allergies?
Allergies (or allergic rhinitis) is your body’s overresponse to typical allergens found outside – from ragweed & pollen, to grass & trees, and even chemicals in the air. Your body senses these particles as “foreign” and sets off a cascade of responses, which ends up in histamine release. Histamine causes the common symptoms of runny nose, sneezing, itching of the nose, eyes, and roof of the mouth, post-nasal drip, cough, scratchy throat, fatigue, and irritability.
Some people have symptoms all year long, some just in the spring or fall, and some only on exposure to certain triggers (like an animal or food). Chronic allergies can lead to dark circles under the eyes, accentuated lines of the lower eyelid, or a crease at the tip of the nose from constantly wiping. Children with allergies will also tend to breathe through their mouth, instead of the nose.
Allergies typically don’t develop until after age 2, but the frequency steadily increases from there, and peaks in early elementary, then rises again in early adulthood. There are some risk factors for developing allergies, though most can’t be changed. Being male, being firstborn, being born during allergy season, and a family history of allergies/asthma/eczema are a few. Some also believe the frequency increases in babies who are introduced to baby food earlier than 6 months old, use of antibiotics in early life, exposure to second-hand smoke in the first year of life, and exposure to indoor allergens, like dust mites.
A doctor can help determine the cause of your symptoms. He/she will review your history, and do an examination of your eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. If the diagnosis is still unclear, she may suggest allergy testing. There are several ways to do this. A blood test can look for elevated levels of response to the most common environmental & food allergens. A skin test can also be done, usually through an Allergist or Dermatologist.
There are many treatment options for allergies. The first line is usually over-the-counter antihistamines, which include Benadryl, Claritin, Allegra, and Zyrtec. They work by blocking the histamine release discussed above. Benadryl can be sedating, and has a short length of action. The rest are not sedating at the recommended doses, and can be taken one to two times daily. Antihistamines have the best effect on itching, sneezing, and runny nose, but less so on nasal congestion. Adding a decongestant like Sudafed (Claritin-D, Allegra-D, or Zyrtec-D) can help alleviate that symptom. Nasal saline (or salt water) rinses in the nose can also be helpful in clearing out the drainage, and washing away any allergens in the nasal passages.
Prescription medications can also be recommended by your doctor. These include nasal steroid sprays (Flonase, Nasonex, Rhinocort, Nasocort, etc), nasal antihistamine sprays (Astelin, Patanase, etc), or oral medicine like Singulair.
If you have questions about what’s causing your symptoms, or you’re not getting relief from the over-the-counter medicines, see your doctor. You don’t have to suffer!