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June 10, 2009 > Summertime... and the Living Is Sneezy

Summertime... and the Living Is Sneezy

How To Survive Allergy Season

If the two main characters in George and Ira Gershwin's folk opera Porgy and Bess had suffered from seasonal allergies, the lyrics to the memorable song "Summertime" might have been changed to reflect their symptoms.

"Many people - perhaps 10 to 20 percent of the population - suffer from seasonal allergies caused by the pollen from trees, grasses or flowers," says Dr. Jeffrey Kishiyama, an allergy and immunology specialist at Washington Hospital. "This time of year, Northern California has the highest concentration of grass pollens of any area in the United States. And for many people, seasonal allergies often are compounded by reactions to year-round allergens such as dust mites, molds and pet dander."

Allergies are abnormal reactions of the body's immune system to various organic proteins called allergens. The immune system overreacts and produces antibodies to attack the allergens. Symptoms of respiratory allergies caused by airborne environmental allergies may include sneezing, wheezing, runny noses and itchy, watery eyes.

"There's a lot of overlap in the symptoms of summer colds and seasonal allergies," says Dr. Kishiyama. "The main difference is that a cold, which is caused by a virus, generally lasts only a week or two. With allergies, the symptoms can last much longer - for as long as you are exposed to whatever is causing the allergic reaction. With allergies, you tend to have more eye problems, including itchiness and redness. Also, while you can get a cough with a cold, prolonged coughing or wheezing may be more worrisome for allergies or asthma."

For some patients, allergies also affect their quality of life by contributing to fatigue, malaise and difficulty with concentration. It is estimated that each year, Americans suffer a significant loss of productivity at school and work due to seasonal allergies.

"The only way to determine for certain whether your symptoms are due to allergies is to conduct skin tests or blood tests to determine whether your body produces antibodies in response to various allergens," he explains.

Treatment for seasonal allergies falls into three general categories: avoidance, medications and immunotherapy.

"Avoiding contact with the specific substances that cause your allergies is ideal, but that is not always practical," Dr. Kishiyama says. "At the very least, we recommend staying indoors when it's windy, sleeping with your windows closed and driving with your car windows rolled up."

In terms of medications, antihistamines and decongestants can provide effective treatment for some allergy sufferers. Anti-inflammatory drugs and bronchodilators may be used for allergy-related asthma.

"In addition to oral medications, prescription nasal sprays can be quite effective," Dr. Kishiyama says. "The nasal spray goes right to the site of the allergic reaction, without going throughout the entire body like oral medications. The prescription sprays are preferable because over-the-counter nasal sprays often contain decongestants and should be used only for a few days at a time. However, over-the-counter nasal 'washes' of saline solutions to cleanse the nasal passages of allergens can be beneficial when used after being exposed to pollens."

People who have persistent ongoing allergies may benefit from immunotherapy - a series of injections of small amounts of allergens, gradually increasing the dosage so the body builds up resistance over time.

"Immunotherapy works best for long-range relief, but it often takes as long as six months to become effective," Dr. Kishiyama explains. "Immunotherapy is a long-term strategy as opposed to a 'quick fix,' and the therapy typically is continued for about four years. People on immunotherapy can still take other medications for symptom relief while building up their immunity. The medications do not reduce the effectiveness of immunotherapy."

If you suffer from seasonal allergies and need help finding a physician, please visit and click on "Find a Physician" or call (800) 963-7070.

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