Help for Spring Allergy Sufferers

Woman Sneezing

Ten years ago on a glorious spring morning, my friend and I escaped from Manhattan for what promised to be a pleasant day trip to Bear Mountain State Park. I was looking forward to a picnic on the grass as a welcome change from life in the city. Yet we had no sooner spread out the blanket and unpacked our lunch than I started sneezing and wheezing. Before long, my eyes were red and exquisitely itchy and a thudding pain had taken over my sinuses. I was in my late 50s at the time and I had never had any kind of allergy in my entire life. Still, there was no mistaking what was happening. The pollen count, which had hit a record high, had gotten the best of me.

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We cut our adventure short and when I spoke with my doctor on the phone later that day, she confirmed that latent allergies can be triggered at any age. In fact, older adults are especially susceptible to first-time attacks. My symptoms have returned faithfully every year since then, although the episodes have been increasingly milder. However, 2012 promises to rival 2002 when it comes to skyrocketing pollen counts and the season will start earlier because we've had a mild winter. That can't be good. Since being forewarned means we can be forearmed, I talked with William Berger, M.D.,Past President of the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, Founder of Allergy and Asthma Associates of Southern California Medical Group in Mission Viejo, and author of the widely acclaimed book "Allergies for Dummies" to get advice about how we can ward off symptoms and deal with them if they do strike:

ThirdAge: What can people do to avoid seasonal allergy attacks?

Dr. Berger: You should stay indoors as much as possible with the windows closed and the air conditioner running. Also, keep car windows closed and use the car's air conditioner. And don't hang clothes out to dry or put bedding outside to get "fresh air." What you're really getting is a coating of pollen that you'll bring back inside. That means you'll be sleeping with the allergens.

ThirdAge: OK, but spring is such a lovely time of year. Is there any way to enjoy fine weather without getting symptoms?

Dr. Berger: Pollen counts are highest in the morning so limit your outings to afternoons and evenings. Then when you get back home, throw all your clothes in the wash and hop in the shower. Wash your hair, too. You want all the pollen you've collected to go down the drain instead of going to bed with you.

ThirdAge: Are over-the-counter medications good choices for symptomatic relief?

Dr. Berger: Actually, prescription drugs are safer - especially for postmenopausal women who are likely to be on medications for high blood pressure. The OTC allergy products such as Claritin, Zertec, and Allegra often have decongestants added to the antihistamines. That's why you'll see names such a Claritin D. The trouble is that while antihistamines are fine for people on hypertensive drugs, the decongestants may cause heart problems. Be sure to read labels before you buy. Or better yet, get a prescription from your doctor for a medication such as Pataday, Lastacaft, or Bepreve. They don't have decongestants added.

ThirdAge: What about nose drops?

Dr. Berger: Do not use OTC nose drops such as Neosynephrine for more than 3 to 5 days. Beyond that time frame, you risk getting a rebound reaction and becoming addicted.

ThirdAge: Is there anything we can do for itchy, teary eyes?

Dr. Berger: Don't use Visine. Simply rinse your eyes out with purified water. Tap water can have irritants in it. And never rub your eyes, particularly not after blowing your nose. You can introduce germs and end up with bacterial conjunctivitis, or pink eye, on top of your allergic conjunctivitis. If that does happen, the discharge will change from clear to yellowish and you'll need to get a prescription for antibiotics.

ThirdAge: Does steam really help to clear out your sinuses?

Dr. Berger: Absolutely. That's a folk remedy that works very well. You can just turn on the shower with hot water, close the bathroom door, and stand there until the rhinitis, or inflammation of your nose, feels better. You could also put your face over a pot of boiling water, but be careful not to burn yourself. Unfortunately, you'll need to do your steam treatments about four times a day and not many people are free to hang out in the bathroom or over a stove that often. Another solution is a product I recommend to my patients called MyPurMist. It's a handheld, portable steam inhaler that's safe and effective. The temperature of the steam is controlled and germ-free. In fact the device even cleans itself after you turn it off. It sells for $149 dollars but if you go to the MyPurMist site here and use the coupon code 1005 at checkout, you'll get $20 off.

ThirdAge: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Dr. Berger: Yes, I recommend going to an allergist and getting tested to find out the types of allergies you have. Once you know what you're dealing with, your doctor can use immunotherapy. Small amounts of your allergens will be injected so that you gradually build up antibodies. The goal is that you'll eventually be symptom free even when you do come in contact with your triggers. That way you wouldn't dread pollen season any longer and you could spend more time outdoors.

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