The Most Common Allergy Myths Debunked
As many as 50 million people in the United States are affected by nasal allergies, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. North Texas is almost notorious for being an allergy hot spot, and if you’re an allergy sufferer, you know that all too well. To add insult to injury, the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex is consistently ranked at the top of the list of worst cities for allergy sufferers.
Allergies are a common occurrence in Texas, but just as common may be the myths that surround them. We spoke to Dania Wierzbicki, M.D., allergist/immunologist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Dallas, to debunk some of these common myths and see which ones are accurate and which ones belong in the trash next to your used tissues.
“Seasonal allergies, sometimes known as hay fever, typically do not occur before the age of two because the body requires a few seasons of allergen exposure before becoming sensitive,” Wierzbicki says. “Individuals can develop seasonal allergies throughout their school years and even adulthood. Seasonal allergies usually persist in adulthood, but there can be some improvement with older age.”
“Children often develop an allergy first to allergens that are continually present in the environment, such as dust mites or animal dander, before they go on to develop seasonal pollen allergies,” Wierzbicki explains. “However, people can be allergic to year-round, or perennial, allergens alone, seasonal allergens alone, or both.”
“Although some patients find seasonal allergies only a nuisance, allergies can impair quality of life and cognitive function,” Wierzbicki cautions. “Untreated seasonal allergies have been associated with poor concentration, lower exam scores during peak pollen seasons, and impaired athletic performance in children. In adults, allergies have been associated with reduced work productivity and poor sleep.”
“North Texas pollen seasons vary somewhat year to year, but are generally predictable,” Wierzbicki says. “Most tree pollens cause symptoms in the spring (March through May), followed by grass pollen in spring and early summer (April through June). Weeds pollinate in the fall (September until a hard freeze), while mountain cedar pollen is a problem in Texas in the winter (December through February).”
Wierzbicki recommends that if you use medication to prevent your allergy symptoms, like antihistamines or nasal steroid sprays, you should start up by Valentine’s Day for effective treatment before the season hits, with spring break (mid-March) being the latest time you can wait.
Following in the footsteps of the last answer, Wierzbicki suggests getting a head start on preventing allergy symptoms.
“Treatment of seasonal allergies includes avoidance measures where possible, medications both OTC and prescription, and allergen immunotherapy,” she says. “Medications, most commonly nasal steroids and oral antihistamines, improve symptoms while you use them, but symptoms return once the medication is stopped.”
For those with allergies that can’t be controlled with OTC or prescription medications, Wierzbicki says allergen immunotherapy is an allergy sufferer’s best-bet at controlling symptoms over a long period of time.
“Allergen immunotherapy, both shots and FDA-approved sublingual tablets, are the only disease-modifying treatments available for seasonal allergies,” she says. “Very small doses of allergen are administered over time and eventually alter the immune system’s reaction to these allergens to induce a long-lasting tolerance to those allergens. Thus, the patient often has long-term relief, even after the injections are discontinued.”
Wierzbicki says this is a common myth and misconception since the common cold and seasonal allergies do have many overlapping symptoms.
“For example, you can have sneezing, runny nose, congestion and post-nasal drainage with both. However, allergies do not cause a fever,” she warns. “If you get a ‘cold’ every spring or fall, it may be allergies.”
Wierzbicki says that although allergies more commonly pop up during childhood, some patients do not notice them as much or identify them as allergies until adulthood. She adds that some people can develop allergies as an adult, though, especially if there is a change in their environment, such as getting a new pet or moving to a new climate.
“Unfortunately, you do not develop immunity with repeated exposure,” Wierzbicki says. “Often, you actually get worse each pollen season.”
Wierzbicki says a family history of an allergic disorder, like seasonal allergies, asthma or eczema, can make it more likely for a child to develop an allergy. Other risk factors include the early use of antibiotics and maternal smoking exposure in the first year of life.
Allergy testing most often includes pricking the skin with a drop of allergen on your skin. If you are allergic, an itchy red bump will appear within 20 minutes and typically resolves within 30 minutes. Many times, the severity of the reaction can determine the severity of your allergy.
“Allergy testing can be very useful in identifying what you are allergic to,” Wierzbicki says. “If you are told you are allergic to everything, it may be because you have very sensitive skin. In rare cases, a patient’s sensitive skin creates an itchy bump from the act of pushing on the skin, not the allergen’s presence.”
“There is no scientific evidence that you can develop a tolerance to oral antihistamine pills, such as Allegra, Zyrtec and Claritin,” Wierzbicki clears up. “If an antihistamine makes you drowsy, you may develop a tolerance to this side effect with repeated use. However, there are people who feel their antihistamine no longer works over time. This is often because their environment has changed or they have developed more allergic sensitivities.”
Think you can outrun your allergies? Wierzbicki says “Not so fast!”
“Certain allergens exist in almost every environment,” she explains. “Dry climates often have less of the allergens that require more humidity to thrive, such as dust mites and molds. However, pollen seasons can be longer if there is never a freeze. For example, Phoenix is very dry, but with planting and irrigation, it has strong pollen seasons.”
Wierzbicki says it’s a common assumption that since bees make honey and carry pollen, that pollen gets into the honey and can be used to treat seasonal allergy symptoms. But, for the most part, bees pollinate flowers that produce large pollen grains which do not normally stay airborne and cause allergic symptoms.
“So, even if local honey had enough pollen to desensitize a person, it may be the wrong type of pollen,” she says. “However, I typically tell patients it is okay to try. The worst that will happen is that it will not help their symptoms.”
Building on the pollen talk from the previous myth, Wierzbicki says people often place the blame for their allergies on the wrong thing. She says flowers are typically pollinated by insects, which is why they are beautiful and have a pleasant smell—to better attract insects and increase their chances of pollination. But what causes allergies for many of us are plants that rely on wind for widespread pollination.
“Wind-pollinated plants, whose pollen becomes airborne in high enough concentrations to be easily breathed in by patients, typically cause seasonal allergy symptoms,” she explains. “Therefore, it is the trees, weeds and grasses that cause your sneezing and itchy eyes. Although if you get too close to a flower, you might sneeze.”
“It is not the pet’s hair that triggers allergies, but the dander (shed skin), saliva and urine of an animal,” Wierzbicki says. “All furred pets have dander, so any pet can potentially cause symptoms for patients with an animal allergy.”
That’s a lot of myths! We hope we helped clear the air for you on many you may have heard of and opened your eyes to some you may not have heard before. Whether you suffer from nasal allergies year-round or just during a particular season, Wierzbicki says allergies shouldn’t be dismissed as minor, and getting treatment can help increase your quality of life.
“Allergy symptoms can be significant and change people’s lives and behavior. Patients often tell me how allergy treatment has improved their life,” she says. “Parents who were miserable while watching their kids play soccer outdoors in the spring, can now comfortably stay for an entire tournament. Or people who could not visit their neighbor’s house due to a pet, now can stay over for dinner without symptoms.”
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