Dr. Druhan Howell, assistant professor of internal medicine and pediatrics at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine and an allergist with USA Physicians Group, said allergies affect approximately 60 million people in the U.S.
“With allergies,” Dr. Howell said, “the immune system mistakes an otherwise harmless substance – such as pollen – as something harmful.” This causes the immune system to release histamine, causing allergy symptoms. Dr. Howell said allergy symptoms include the following:
- Nasal symptoms: nasal congestion, itching, sneezing, runny nose, post nasal drip, and sinus pain and pressure.
- Eye symptoms: eye itching, redness (conjunctivitis), watering, eyelid swelling/irritation, dark circles, and clear mucus discharge.
- Ear symptoms: ear popping, fullness, underwater sensation, and itching.
- Mouth/throat symptoms: itching of the roof of the mouth, itching of the throat, clearing throat, post nasal drip, mouth breathing at night/sore throat.
- Breathing symptoms: cough, chest tightness, wheezing, and shortness of breath
Allergies can be either seasonal (spring, summer or fall) or episodic due to allergen exposure. “In our region,” Dr. Howell explained, “longer pollen seasons mean that people suffer symptoms more months out of the year than in other parts of the country.”
Common allergens in Mobile, AL:
Spring – tree pollen (oak, hickory/pecan, elm, and bayberry)
Summer – grass pollen (Bermuda, Johnson, Bahia, timothy, orchard and rye)
Fall – weed pollen (ragweed, baccharis, English plantain, lamb’s quarter, rough pigweed)
Indoor allergens – dust mites, cockroaches, molds, cats and dogs
Dr. Howell said the first line of treatment for allergies is avoidance of allergens.
She recommends checking local pollen levels to help you identify peak pollen days; closing windows at night to prevent pollens from drifting into your home; minimizing early morning activity when pollen is usually emitted (between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m.); and keeping car windows closed when traveling.
According to Dr. Howell, there are also steps you can take to avoid common indoor allergens.
Mold, which is both an indoor and outdoor allergen, is a fungus that develops in warm, moist areas. Dr. Howell recommends keeping your home dry and clean and cleaning areas of moisture regularly.
Dust mites, microscopic organisms that consume flakes of human skin, are an indoor allergen that accumulates in pillows, mattresses, and stuffed animals. “Dust mites emit tiny particles that when respired can lead to allergy,” Dr. Howell said. “They can account for half the weight of a pillow or mattress after 5-10 years.” To avoid dust mites, Dr. Howell suggests purchasing encasements for pillows and mattresses, as well as washing linens weekly in hot water and drying them on high heat. Routine vacuuming and dusting is also beneficial.
The cockroach is a common allergen, especially in our region. She suggests having routine exterminations, putting away food, and filling in gaps or cracks that can allow cockroaches into the home.
Unfortunately, millions of pet owners have an allergy to their animals. According to Dr. Howell, both cat and dog allergens are found in more than 90 percent of U.S. homes, even though only about 45 percent of homes have a cat or dog as a pet. If you have a pet allergy, the best strategy is to avoid or reduce exposure to the animal as much as possible. “All cats and dog produce allergen,” she said. “It is best to at least keep animals out of the bedroom and to vacuum regularly.”
Additional therapies for allergies include nasal irrigation and medications such as over-the-counter antihistamines, nasal steroid, and nasal antihistamine.
If symptoms are bothersome and not controlled with over-the-counter medications, Dr. Howell said you should seek evaluation from an allergist. “An allergist can help identify allergic triggers through skin testing, evaluate for other causes to your symptoms, counsel on avoidance techniques, utilize medications to control symptoms, and may consider immunotherapy,” she said.
Immunotherapy, or allergy shots, “teaches the immune system that the allergen isn’t bad.” Small amounts of the allergens are injected under the skin once or twice weekly in the doctors’ office. As a result, the immune system shifts from being allergic to being tolerant with subsequent improvement in symptoms.
“Immunotherapy is the only therapy that can alter the natural course of the disease,” Dr. Howell said. “Allergy medications only mask symptoms.”