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Allergies Run in the Family

The predicted pollen count Monday morning was 5.9 pollen grains per centimeter, meaning pollen levels will likely cause symptoms for many individuals who suffer from allergies to the predominant pollen types of the season — oak, maple, and ash, according to pollen.com. The predicted count is expected to reach a high of 10.7 pollen grains per centimeter by Thursday. For many, this means nothing, but for more than 50 million children and adults in the United States, it means this week is going to be miserable.

One in every five people suffer from allergies, including allergic asthma, and allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic disease in the United States, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America Web site.

"Allergies can be seasonal, which means they present at the same time each year, or they can be year-round," said Dr. Sheryl Lucas, an allergist with Kaiser Permanente of the Mid-Atlantic States with practices in Springfield and Washington D.C. "You have to know the difference between allergies and a cold. Both present with itchy eyes and cough. Generally, colds also have fever, muscle aches and fatigue and last three to five days. With allergies, you feel fine. With a cold, you feel sick."

ALLERGIES are an overreaction of the immune system to substances that cause no reaction in most others. In most cases, they are inherited and the type of allergy can also be dictated by environmental factors.

"In southern climates, Virginia is one, you have two common allergens year-round dust mites and tree pollen in the early spring," said Dr. Kenneth Bergman, a physician at Inova Fair Oaks Hospital who also has a practice, the Family Allergy Center, in Centreville. "In the north, you have fall pollen and you don’t see dust mites as much."

Typically, symptoms include sneezing and stuffy nose, coughing, itchy nose and throat, dark circles under the eyes from sinus pressure and red, itchy, watery eyes. Allergies can range from allergic rhinitis, which is the medical term for hay fever, to asthma to eczema.

Even though, a majority of the time, there is a family history of allergies, they do not always occur as a child. Instead, some allergies can develop as an adult. And while children can grow out of allergies with medication over time, that is not the case for adults.

"If you know there is a family history, you may do something differently. For example, if there is a family history of peanut allergies, it would be a good idea to avoid peanuts," said Lucas, who is also a board member of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. "Allergies can develop at any point in life and we don't get a post card warning you're going to have an allergic reaction to shellfish. Severe food allergies you don't grow out of. If they develop as an adult, you tend not to grow out of them. So it is not a good idea, say, if you are allergic to shellfish to eat some to test to see if you are still allergic after a period of time."

The experts say allergies are becoming more common, most likely because of environmental factors and changes with our own immune systems.

ONE WAY to see if a person has any allergies is through a skin test administered by a physician, which involves a series of pin picks that introduce allergens to the body. The reactions to any of the introduced allergens can give the physician an idea of how severe the allergy is. In some cases, the reaction is mild enough the person can safely use over-the-counter medicines such as Alavert, Claritin, Dimetapp, Benadryl, Sudafed or other allergy remedy. The choice of medication should depend on the symptoms. Antihistamines stop sneezing, runny nose, itchy and watery eyes while decongestants clear the stuffy nose and improve breathing. In general, however, choosing an over-the-counter medication is a trial-and-error process to find what works and what does not.

"If you're not really that sick, you can take over-the-counter medications," Bergman said. "If you've had the symptoms for a week go get some Claritin and if that works, fine. If you don't get better, then see a doctor. In the old days, we would go to shots, but now-a-days drugs are better."

The allergy shots, Bergman said, are usually reserved for more severe cases. The shots are used to build up a person's immunity over a period of time, meaning the shots could be required on a regular basis anywhere from months to years.

Lucas said helpful tips and a self-screening questionnaire can be found at www.allergyactionplan.com. For more information about the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, visit www.aafa.org.