Most of us look forward to warmer temperatures and longer days full of sunshine at this time of year. But for those who have seasonal allergies, the arrival of spring just means more sneezing, wheezing and itchy eyes.
For many people, the trouble starts as soon as the trees, grass and weeds start to wake from winter, releasing tiny pollen particles into the air that can trigger asthma and seasonal allergic rhinitis, also known as hay fever.
As we inhale the pollen, our body’s immune system senses it is being invaded and releases chemical mediators like histamine and leukotrienes. These chemicals can cause swelling and set off symptoms such as itching, runny nose, sneezing and asthma symptoms such as coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.
Interestingly, the allergy season appears to be getting longer, a development that scientists attribute to global warming. Warmer, shorter winters mean trees and shrubs are beginning to pollinate as much as three weeks earlier in the spring, and weed pollen lingers about three weeks longer in the fall. Scientists have also noted that the increase in temperature, along with an increase in carbon dioxide in the air, helps pollinating plants grow bigger and produce more pollen.
The weather in your area can greatly influence pollen counts. Windy, hot, dry days increase both of these counts. Pollen can be carried several kilometers by the wind so living in an area with few trees does not mean you will not be exposed to tree pollen. Rainy and cloudy days cause decreased counts by washing the pollen out of the air. You can check pollen counts in your area on the Environment Canada website or TV station.
The impact of having seasonal allergies extends well beyond the symptoms. Coughing at night because of asthma symptoms or a constant runny or stuffy nose can lead to sleep deprivation, which can affect a person’s performance at work or school.
If you suffer from any of these symptoms, it is important to see an allergy specialist who can help identify what’s setting off these reactions.
Avoidance is the first line of defense. This may mean reducing the amount of time you spend outdoors during the pollen season, especially on windy days. Pollen counts are highest early in the morning and decrease later in the day. Keep windows shut and use air conditioning on hot days. Change your clothes and shower at the end of the day to remove pollens. Don’t dry your clothes outside when pollen counts are high. Pets can also track pollen indoors.
Many allergy remedies are available on pharmacy shelves, but not everyone gets relief from over the counter products. An allergy specialist can help patients access more effective medications.
Low-dose corticosteroids are the safest and most common medications used. They are either used as a nasal spray or inhaled into the lungs. Doctors suggest using nasal corticosteroids before the pollen season starts. If you have asthma, it is best to stay on your inhaled corticosteroids throughout the year. It is important to use your nasal and inhaled corticosteroids every day as prescribed by your health care provider in order for them to be effective. Your doctor may suggest increasing the amount of inhaled corticosteroids if you have pollen allergies during the pollen season. Follow your Asthma Action Plan to keep your asthma under control.
Another effective treatment for pollen allergies is immunotherapy. This involves regular injections of small amounts of allergen to prompt the body to build up tolerance. This treatment requires a long-term commitment and can take up to five years before the immune system builds up enough tolerance to prevent reactions.
If spring brings feelings of dread due to allergies, don’t despair. With proper assessment and appropriate treatment, even allergic individuals can rejoice in the spring season.
Bev Kulbaba is a nurse and Certified Asthma educator with the Children’s Allergy and Asthma Education Centre at the Children’s Hospital, Health Sciences Centre Winnipeg.This article was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on April 13, 2017.