Ahh, spring. So beautiful as the weather warms and the world awakes from a winter slumber. Animals frolic among the budding flowers and the trees’ bare branches transition to green leaves. It paints a dreamy picture, but, if you suffer from seasonal allergies, spring can feel like a nightmare – bloodshot eyes and labored breathing amid a colorful burst of allergens like pollen, dust mites, dander, ragweed, grass, mold and more that surrounds you, sticking to your car, your porch swing, your clothes and thickening the air itself. You keep running but you just can’t escape it.
Luckily, it’s often a nightmare that can be tamed. The world of allergies – seasonal and year-round – is evolving, and, though there is no simple cure, a variety of treatments are available that can help control allergies so you can get back to enjoying your life.
Over-the-counter options like nasal sprays, oral antihistamines and eyedrops are common go-tos for allergy sufferers, though Dr. Lindsey Stoltz Steadman, a board-certified allergist/immunologist with Charleston Allergy & Asthma, advised to be wary of “combination” antihistamines, like those that offer an antihistamine and decongestant in one.
“Often, combination medications are a lot of medications in one pill. Sometimes people lose track of what they’re taking and can end up with more than the recommended amount in a day,” Dr. Stoltz Steadman explained.
She also advised against daily use of decongestants and antihistamines that cause drowsiness, like Benadryl.
“Over-the-counter decongestants can be used for their drying effects, but they are not medications that should be taken on a regular basis. Benadryl is another great antihistamine but should not be used on a daily basis. We want people on the least number of medications and the lowest doses possible. Allergy immunotherapy shots can help with that.”
Traditional allergy immunotherapy – allergy shots – can often resolve or significantly improve a patient’s symptoms after three to five years of treatments.
“Ultimately, immunotherapy is hands-down the closest thing we have to a cure. It’s taking what you’re specifically allergic to, diluting it with a mostly-water-based solution and injecting the patient with gradually increasing amounts of the offending allergens. There are no other allergy treatments available that are more individualized or achieve these long-lasting results, ” she said.
A relatively new option to battle some seasonal allergens is through sublingual tablets.
“The newest approved treatment for allergies is sublingual tablets specifically for dust mites,” explained Dr. Neil Kao, a board-certified allergist/immunologist in Greenville.
The tablets dissolve under the tongue, and treatment lasts for three to five years. Sublingual tablets are also available for ragweed and grasses.
As for holistic allergy treatment, the options are fairly limited.
“The only approved herbal-based treatment is cromolyn sodium nasal spray – brand name NasalCrom,” suggested Dr. Kao. “Many other therapies are discussed on the internet. However, as of yet, no holistic treatment has been uniformly accepted.”
“Some people find nasal saline to be effective, but they do not contain medication, so you are only treating symptoms. If you’re a minimalist, you could start with those,” Dr. Steadman added.
Tolerance of certain allergens can vary over time, but, with a significant amount of people moving to South Carolina from other regions, their allergies often increase.
“People traveling or moving here from outside of our region can develop new allergy symptoms because they are being exposed to new pollens for the first time,” explained Dr. Steadman. “For people with nasal symptoms, eye symptoms like itchy watery eyes and whether or not you notice a seasonal pattern, it’s something that should be looked into by a board-certified allergist so we can determine what is specifically causing your issues. People get sick all the time – sometimes it turns out they have uncontrolled or poorly controlled allergies. And poorly controlled allergies can result in poorly controlled asthma.”
Common seasonal allergies in the state include ragweed, grasses, trees like oak, elm and hickory, mold and, of course, pollen.
“Our local geography and weather contribute to near-ideal conditions each spring for high pollen counts. The warm or hot weather plus rain plus daylight contribute to strong growth of trees and grasses. The tree pollen usually peaks during the first week of April,” explained Dr. Kao. “About every other year, the counts are so high, when the wind is not strong, yellow pollen settles on the earth. One to two inches may be seen for three or four days. During late May, the grass pollen peaks, and, every few years, a layer of white pollen can be seen on the ground.”
Ultimately, he added, “If you or a loved one have seasonal allergies, remember you can’t predict the weather. Pre-medication is the strategy recommended by allergists. Start taking your allergy meds by mid-March and continue until the end of June.”
Or, for a longer-term solution, speak to a board-certified immunologist to discover how immunotherapy shots can improve your allergies.
By Anne Shuler Toole