When springtime allergies made their annual debut a few months
ago, the determined grit their teeth. Unflinchingly, they wiped
burning, watery eyes and stifled sneezes with scrunched-up noses
and pursed lips.
It’ll be over soon,
they told themselves, soggy Kleenex in hand.
When springtime allergies made their annual debut a few months ago, the determined grit their teeth. Unflinchingly, they wiped burning, watery eyes and stifled sneezes with scrunched-up noses and pursed lips. “It’ll be over soon,” they told themselves, soggy Kleenex in hand.
Now that it’s still not over and there’s no end in sight, many of the determined have admitted defeat and bowed to treatment, which comes in a variety of forms including common sense, pharmaceuticals and Chinese medicine.
Pinpointing the best treatment for allergies requires some knowledge about what allergies are and what you’re allergic to, said Dr. Steven Prager, an allergist with the Hollister Allergy Clinic. Prager said he sees about 100 patients per week for allergies.
Allergies are caused by allergens, which are millions of tiny particles floating through the air.
Because of the Central Coast’s low altitude, high humidity and abundance of wild-growing grasses and weeds, the area is a hotbed for common allergens such as pollen, dust and mold, Prager said. The recent weather also has played a part in this year’s bad allergy season.
“We’ve had a lot of rain this year, which has helped the trees and grass grow. Now that things are heating up, all of that pollen is going into the air,” he said. “I’ve heard from many patients that this is the worst year yet for their allergies.”
During the last week of May, the clinic, which conducts its own pollen counts, recorded tree and grass pollens and molds at “high” and weed pollens at “very high.” Almost all individuals who are sensitive to pollens or molds will experience symptoms when pollen levels reach the very high level, most people will experience symptoms at a high level and many people will experience symptoms at a moderate level, according to the clinic.
People are exposed to several allergens several times per day. When allergens seep into the respiratory system, the body produces histamine, a substance that can cause the uncomfortable symptoms associated with allergies, usually sneezing, coughing, watery eyes and itchy noses. Allergies left untreated can lead to more serious problems such as sinus infections, asthma, sleep apnea and ear infections, Prager said.
Because most people are exposed to hundreds of different types of allergens each day, knowing exactly what you’re allergic to is difficult to guess. One of the most common and most accurate ways to determine which allergens affect you is to undergo a skin test.
During a skin test, a doctor places drops of different kinds of allergens, usually on the upper back. The skin underneath each drop is pricked with a small pin, causing minimal swelling beneath the drops of allergens to which you are not allergic. The drops of allergens you are allergic to will cause larger swelling.
Once you know what you’re allergic to, the next step is to get treated. The most basic treatment, Prager said, is simple avoidance. Keep car and house windows closed to shut out the molds and pollens, for example, and frequently wash bedding in hot water or purchase a special bed cover to cut down on dust mites.
With a little diligence, keeping molds and pollens at bay is easy enough. However, if you own a pet and are allergic to animal dander, controlling symptoms might require medication. According to the clinic, the two most common types of allergy medications are antihistamines and nasal sprays.
Several antihistamines are available over the counter, and some of the newer versions – such as Claritin and Alavert – don’t cause drowsiness as severely as their older counterparts. Some nasal sprays also are available without prescription, or a doctor can prescribe stronger versions such as Flonase or Nasonex.
If the more common medications don’t work and your allergies are hampering quality of life, consider allergy shots. Also known as immunotherapy, allergy shots contain very small amounts of allergen solutions. Shots are given in the arm in increasingly higher concentrations, allowing the body to build up tolerance to the specific allergen. Generally, the top dose is reached in about four to six months.
Perhaps a more holistic approach to treating allergies is traditional Chinese medicine, including acupuncture and herbal remedies. Chinese medical theory holds that qi – pronounced “chee” – flows through the body, promoting vitality and protecting the body against foreign invaders including allergens.
The more freely flowing the qi, the healthier the person, said Ahnna Goossen, a licensed acupuncturist and owner of Gilroy’s Acupuncture and Herbal Clinic. According to Goossen, acupuncture and herbal therapies can help clear the way for qi to make its way through the body. Patients can opt to use acupuncture either for preventative care or in the case of acute allergy attacks, Goossen said.
For preventative care, patients get acupuncture once a week for about a month prior to the onset of their allergy season, which varies from person to person depending on their particular allergies. They follow up with sessions as needed or if an attack occurs, and in between visits, they can take herbal remedies. Herbal remedies most commonly are sold as pills but also are available as loose-leaf teas.
Generally, the pills cost $10 to $20 and last about two weeks, with three tablets taken daily.
In Goossen’s clinic, the first visit for acupuncture – costing $85 – lasts 1 1/2 hours and subsequent visits – $65 each – last an hour. In a soothing atmosphere of candles and music, patients have small needles inserted at so-called body points below the knees, in the hands and feet, in the nose and along the eyebrows and scalp.
With the needles inserted, patients rest for about half an hour while listening to calm music, and when the treatment is finished, they consult with Goossen about appropriate herbal therapy. Although acupuncture coupled with herbal therapy is most effective, Goossen said patients can opt to do one or the other.
Goossen estimated about 50 percent of her patients receive acupuncture for allergies, even if some of them don’t initially realize the treatment can help with allergies.
“A lot of people come in with other problems, such as back pain, but once they get the treatment, they notice their allergies clear up, sometimes almost immediately,” Goossen said.
Goossen said she believes in the Chinese medicinal approach to treating allergies because there are no negative side effects and no risk of becoming dependent. Additionally, she said, the holistic approach helps ensure the health of the whole body is addressed, not just the specific problem of allergies.
“It’s not a Band-Aid approach,” she said. “When your immune system is strong, it doesn’t matter what kind of allergen is out there. Your body can handle it.”
Diana Del Sarto, a 23-year-old Gilroy resident, started seeing Goossen for acupuncture and herbal therapy three years ago to remedy her pollen and hay allergies. During her college career in San Luis Obispo, where pollen counts are high, Del Sarto took Allegra D, a prescription antihistamine. She decided to try traditional Chinese medicine for two reasons: cost and quality of life.
“(Allegra D) was costing me about $40 for a month’s supply,” she said. “That, and I was getting very tired and groggy. When I woke up in the morning, I felt like I was just dragging.”
Although she was a bit apprehensive for her first acupuncture session, Del Sarto said the atmosphere relaxed her, and she swears the needles didn’t hurt. More importantly, she said the therapy helped clear her allergies, and Del Sarto has only had to take herbs once this allergy season to combat an attack.
“It’s been an amazing difference,” she said. “This year, it’s almost like my allergies don’t exist.”