Itchy eyes, runny nose, puffy eyelids, dry throat—with nearly 40 million Americans suffering from seasonal allergies, chances are we all know someone who is miserable during springtime. But, there’s more to having a sniffle-free springtime than avoiding triggers like pollen, grass, weeds, and molds.
“Allergies are dependent on the individual. If you find every time you’re around a dog, a particular plant, or a bouquet of flowers that you experience congestion, runny eyes or sneezing, start thinking about your environment,” says Pamela Coffey, MD, family medicine physician at Kaiser Permanente’s Parkside Medical Offices. “That’s how you can determine your triggers.”
Dr. Coffey clarifies that seasonal allergies are not just limited to springtime.
“Some people have allergies that flare up year-round because of the different allergens present in each season. Being indoors more in the winter, having animals, and living in older buildings where heating ducts can harbor allergens and spread them when the furnace is reactivated are common triggers.”
Ten tips to prevent allergies
Although she acknowledges that it can be hard to avoid allergens — especially for a person living an active lifestyle in Colorado — Dr. Coffey stresses the importance of minimizing exposure to triggers. Here are some measures you can take:
- Keep your windows closed at night while you sleep.
- Clean your house thoroughly and frequently.
- Keep areas that collect water (such as in bathrooms and outside) clean to avoid mold growth.
- For children who suffer allergies, limit stuffed animals in their rooms as they can harbor allergens.
- If you have pets, keep them out of your bedrooms at night.
- Vacuum more often.
- Change your furnace filter regularly.
- If you know you have a pollen allergy, pre-treat your symptoms with an over-the-counter medicine prior to going outside on a windy day.
- Run bedroom humidifiers at night. “Make sure your humidifiers are clean. They can help with congestion, and sometimes help people breathe better — especially infants and small children.”
- Use saline nose spray. “It’s a life-saver for relief because it moistens naturally. It can help with congestion and dryness, and it’s safe for kids to use at any age.”
Five tips for over-the-counter relief
Dr. Coffey advises that if you are generally healthy and have not been previously diagnosed with any breathing disorders, that mild to severe allergies are best treated with over-the-counter (OTC) remedies. “If you’re experiencing typical sneezing, runny eyes and runny nose, OTC meds should suffice.” She suggests the following medications (some with caveats, detailed below), and offers a few tips:
- Nasal corticosteroid (like Flonase) administered in each nostril at bedtime. For children, check with a pharmacist, pediatrician, or family doctor first for proper dosage instructions. If you’re using a nasal corticosteroid, make sure you’re following the directions and look at the diagram in the packaging. “Many people don’t like nasal spray because they’re not using it properly. If you use it improperly, you’ll taste it and your nose will burn,” she says.
- If that’s not working, you can step up to an antihistamine like Claritin or Zyrtec. Dr. Coffey usually recommends that patients use Claritin during the day or Zyrtec at night, since Zyrtec can have a slightly more sedating effect on some individuals.
- Benadryl (or similar diphenhydramine-based allergy medications) can be effective, but Dr. Coffey cautions it can be a potentially heavy sedative, so it should not be used by people over the age of 65 because of the increased risk for falls.
- Coffey says patients often do not give over-the-counter meds a chance to work. “If you’ve tried it for two days and it didn’t work, that’s not treatment failure — you need to give nasal spray or antihistamines two weeks to a month” to determine effectiveness.
- Coffey adds, “Some people only need to take antihistamines or nose spray for a month, others need to take it year-round. If you need to take it long term, it’s safe to do so.”
Allergy testing, and when to see a doctor
“Allergy testing is not fun. Usually there’s a panel of needles with various allergens at the tips, and they prick an area on your back or arm with the panel to see which allergens your skin reacts to,” says Dr. Coffey. “Allergy testing is only recommended if you’re not able to determine your triggers and you’re not responding to any over-the-counter remedies. Most people do not need allergy testing.”
In fact, the typical treatment used for allergies identified through testing (injections) is itself not particularly convenient, according to Dr. Coffey.
“It’s not like a shot every six months, or even one a month. It’s usually a shot a week when initiating treatment, and it sometimes takes up to a year for the injections to help alleviate symptoms,” says Dr. Coffey.
Allergies can complicate preexisting breathing disorders, so Dr. Coffey recommends seeing your doctor if you are suffering severe allergies and:
- Have asthma — allergies often cause flare-ups so it’s important to control them.
- Have been diagnosed with COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).
When not seeing patients, Dr. Coffey enjoys hiking, cooking, and traveling. She grew up on a farm in Kentucky and developed her passion for medicine through a strong work ethic and living in a rural community. She chose to practice for Kaiser Permanente due to their emphasis on preventative medicine, a team-building atmosphere, and a continued commitment to providing quality care for their patients.
Pamela Coffey, MD, is a family medicine provider located at 215 Parkside Drive in Colorado Springs. She is part of the state’s largest physician group — the Colorado Permanente Medical Group — which serves the 660,000 members of Kaiser Permanente in Colorado. To learn more about how Kaiser Permanente can help your family thrive, visit kp.org or call 1-888-681-7878.