For the thousands of South Africans who suffer from seasonal allergies, spring is less about the joys of flowers and picnics, and more about the realities of runny noses and red eyes. If you are a hayfever sufferer then spare a thought for those who suffer all year round from allergies, to food, to dust mites, mould, animal dander, latex and more.
The good news is that with proper management techniques, most allergies can be brought under control. With recent developments in immunotherapy, some may even be cured.The trick lies in not simply accepting your condition, but in taking positive action to overcome it.
The first step: finding out everything you need to know.
How does an allergy develop?
The first time you breathe in an allergen (pollen, for example), your immune system responds as if the pollen is a threat to the body. It does so by producing a small amount of antibody to ‘fight off’ the perceived danger. The next time you come in contact with that particular allergen your body will recognise it as a substance that your immune system has labeled as ‘bad’. Your body will then manufacture lots of antibodies, which will in turn stimulate mast cells in the nose, throat, eyes and lungs to release histamine when you are next exposed to the allergen.
Histamine encourages other cells to become irritated and secrete fluids.That’s why you find yourself with a runny and itchy nose, coughing and sneezing as if you had a cold. The body is trying to expel the allergen it mistakenly believes to be harmful. Other common allergic reactions include conjunctivitis, asthma, eczema and hives.
Seasonal allergic rhinitis (Hayfever)
Many people are only too familiar with hayfever symptoms ,the severe bouts of sneezing, itching nose, palate and even ear canals, red, watering eyes, headaches and the ensuing general irritability. Seasonal allergies are usually triggered by pollen. Not the yellow stuff from flowers but the microscopic pollens released by grasses, weeds and trees. Unfortunately for us, because of the long pollination season in South Africa, seasonal allergies might last as long as ten months.
Your first line of defense is to try and avoid your specific allergens. Seasonal allergy sufferers could start by:
- Saving outdoor tasks for calm afternoons. Many sufferers find that their symptoms are more severe in the mornings and on windy days.
- Changing clothes or taking a quick shower when coming indoors, to remove any pollen collected on clothing, hair or skin.
- Drying clothes indoors during pollination season.
- Shutting the windows when traveling by car. Use the air conditioner instead.
- Avoiding obvious allergy-aggravating tasks, such as mowing the lawn during the pollen season. While these measures help minimise symptoms wind-borne allergens are impossible to avoid altogether.
If you can’t keep your hayfever under control with avoidance techniques, you may want to look into some of the medical treatments available.
- Salt water sprays
A gentle homeopathic treatment, salt-water nasal sprays are cheap, easy to try at home and may make a difference to mild hayfever symptoms.
These work by blocking the action of the histamine that is produced by the body during an allergic response. Traditionally, antihistamines have been associated with debilitating drowsiness. Many allergy sufferers have found it easier to simply sniff their way through the day rather than walk around half asleep. Recently, new generation antihistamines have been launched in the market, where this side effect is much reduced. This is particularly important for people who need their motor skills intact such as pilots. Ask your doctor for a recommended antihistamine.
- Mast cell stabilisers
These work by acting directly on the mast cells that produce the histamine responsible for the allergic symptoms.
- Nasal corticosteroids
A synthetic relation to the natural hormones secreted by the adrenal gland, nasal corticosteroids work as anti-inflammatories, combating stuffiness and congestion. While the idea of using steroids may be unnerving, nasal spray preparations are quite safe. If used according to the manufacturer’s instructions, nasal corticosteroids apply only a small amount of the medication straight to the affected site, and have a negligible impact on the body.
Regarded by some therapists as the treatment of choice for seasonal allergies, immunotherapy works by exposing the body to high concentrations of the offending allergen, giving the body the opportunity to develop a tolerance towards it. While usually available in the form of new desensitisation injections, a therapy nicknamed SLIT (sublingual immunotherapy) is an easier option, where drops are placed under the tongue each day, usually over a period of two to three years. Eventually the patient develops a tolerance to the allergen, and the adverse reaction dies away.
Immunotherapy or hyposensitisation is very effective in treating grass pollen allergies, with good results in more than 90 percent of cases. While the injections may be time consuming, (you need a jab every six weeks) the under the-tongue treatment is easy to administer at home. Unfortunately, immunotherapy is an expensive option, but its cost should be offset against future savings. You should be able to ditch your traditional hayfever remedies and enjoy the satisfaction of being cured at last.
What about nasal decongestants?
Many hayfever sufferers reach for traditional decongestants when their symptoms flare up.These work by shrinking the dilated nasal vessels back to their normal size, allowing air to pass more freely through the nasal passages. Nasal decongestants are really better suited to treating colds, as they become ineffective if used for longer than a week at a time. Use them with care when treating allergies.
Perennial allergic rhinitis
These hayfever-like symptoms are present throughout the year. While excessive sneezing – especially in the morning and in the evenings – and a very blocked nose are the main complaints, the intense nasal itching of seasonal allergies is not usually present. Patients often complain of disturbed sleep and headaches. Associated problems include abnormalities of the teeth and sinuses, earache
and post nasal drip. Perennial allergy sufferers are sensitive to allergens that are in the environment all year round. Dust mites, fungal spores and animal dander are among the most common. While medical treatment can follow much the same lines as for hayfever, with new generation antihistamines, steroid nasal sprays and immunotherapy ( not quite as effective for perennial sufferers, but still useful for up to 70 percent of house dust mite allergies) – controlling the household environment can make a big difference.
Isn’t it time you got the upper hand on allergies? Let your Clicks Pharmacist assist you in coming up with the most effective treatment programme for you. You will need to book an appointment with our nursing practitioner.