My boys love the Barenaked Ladies Snack Time childrens’ CD. We listen to it at least three times a week (they would prefer seven days a week, but I have my limits). My two-year-old regularly requests the “Allergies” song. It starts out with a sneeze and segues to the lyrics, “Allergic to cats, allergic to bees, allergic to dust, allergic to trees, allergic to mold, allergic to weeds. My little brother is allergic to meat, my friends’ mother is allergic to wheat, allergic to meat? Allergic to wheat? Gotta be tricky finding something to eat!” And then we sing the chorus “Allergies, allergies …” and everyone laughs.
It’s easy to laugh at a silly kids’ song, but when you’re the one suffering from allergies, it can be downright miserable.
More than 35 million Americans have seasonal allergies. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI), “An allergic reaction begins in the immune system. Our immune system protects us from invading organisms that can cause illness. If you have an allergy, your immune system mistakes an otherwise harmless substance as an invader. The immune system overreacts to the allergen by producing Immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies. These antibodies travel to cells that release histamine and other chemicals, causing an allergic reaction.” So, basically, your body thinks of certain substances as a threat and is actually trying to help you. It’s a case of miscommunication. The end result equals itchy, watery eyes, scratchy throats, nasal congestion, sneezing, and runny noses.
If left untreated, seasonal symptoms can range from mildly annoying to a complete lack of focus and even loss of sleep. Seasonal allergies are very different from being allergic to certain types of food, insect stings, medications, and latex (you know, the kind where your friend/family member has to carry an epi pen because they could have a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction).
This time of year in Minnesota, the main allergy triggers are ragweed and mold, causing a lovely little thing called hay fever. (When summer fades into fall, mold spores become more common as decaying leaves and other vegetation hit the ground.) According to the AAAAI, most regions in the US experience ragweed growth between mid-August and the first frost. Each ragweed plant makes about a billion pollen grains per season, traveling up to 400 miles. That’s a whole lot of pollen floating around in the air.
The most common treatments include decongestants, like Sudafed, which provide short-term relief; antihistamines such as Zyrtec or Claritin (available over-the-counter) or prescription options like Allegra or Xyzal; and corticosteroids, like Nasonex or Flonase, that are sprayed directly up your nose. Another proven treatment is immunotherapy, or allergy shots, administered by an allergist/immunologist. If you already know you have allergies, it’s wise to make an appointment before high-allergy season starts, rather than when you’re feeling lousy.
Experts also recommend wearing a filter or mask when raking or mowing (or asking someone else to do the yardwork if possible), keeping windows closed when pollen counts are high, washing your hair at night (pollen can stick to mousse or gel), using cool compresses to soothe itchy eyes, flushing your nose with a saline spray—made with 1 tsp. of salt in a quart of lukewarm water, trying herbal therapy (stinging nettle can be found in hot tea; gingko balboa is in pill form), incorporating grape seed extract into your diet, eating whole, fresh foods, drinking plenty of water, and getting eight hours of sleep a night.
You can check pollen counts in your area with this tool, provided by AAAAI. With a little advanced planning, you can enjoy the beauty of autumn rather than suffering and sniffling your way through it.