Allergies Suck! How to Handle Allergy Season

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Allergies Explained, cont'd.

Asthma

Many patients don't have asthma under control even if they're taking medications for it. One reason? You guessed it: untreated allergies. More than half of adults with asthma have allergies and many don't know it. "If you don't control the allergy symptoms, it makes it a lot harder to control your asthma," says Dr. Rachelefsky. Allergies can cause chronic inflammation of the airways and make them hyperreactive, setting up asthma attacks. The National Institutes of Health recommends allergy testing if you have persistent asthma. Lessening exposure to allergens can dramatically improve asthma symptoms and lower the amount of meds you need. If you're allergic to dust, even simple steps like protecting mattresses with an allergen-proof encasing (the airtight type also used to prevent bedbugs) can help.

Chronic Cough

Fran Howard couldn't stop coughing. Her doctor tried antibiotics and then an asthma inhaler. "It was a dry, hacking cough that wouldn't go away no matter what I did," says Howard, of Chicago. Her doctor finally sent her to an allergist, where she learned she was allergic to grass, trees, pollen, and bee stings. It's a common scenario for coughers; they're given antibiotics or just told to wait it out, says Dr. Rachelefsky. Coughs, along with hoarseness and sore throats, can be caused by postnasal drip or from the allergens that irritate the lungs and throat. Treating allergies often calms coughing.

Insomnia and Sleep Apnea

About 80 percent of people with allergies say that feeling congested makes it difficult to fall asleep or causes them to wake up in the middle of the night. Being stuffed up can lead to microarousals: You don't realize you're awake but you can't get into that restorative deep sleep, explains Dr. Cox. The more congested you are, the worse your sleep will be and the more tired you'll feel the next day. Allergies also contribute to snoring and increase your risk of sleep apnea, when you literally stop breathing for seconds at a time throughout the night. Sleep apnea can cause fatigue, memory problems, high blood pressure, weight gain, and other serious health issues.

Depression

People with allergies have a higher rate of depression than the general population. One recent study even found an increase in suicide during allergy season. The connection is not well understood, and any health condition can put stress on people and lead to depression. Allergies can wreak havoc with your quality of life. They make you tired, irritable, and physically uncomfortable and can put a damper on your social life. All of that can contribute to the blues, says Scott Patten, MD, professor in the department of community health sciences at the University of Calgary. But some experts think allergies might play a more direct role in depression. The inflammatory chemicals released during an allergic reaction may affect the nervous system and mood, but more research is needed. Meanwhile, try treating the allergies and see if that lifts your spirits, too.

High Blood Pressure

Allergic rhinitis may lead to hypertension, according to research. Those with year-round allergies seem to have the greatest risk. While findings aren't conclusive, some experts theorize that the allergy-sleep apnea connection could play a role, since apnea has been linked to high blood pressure, explains Tania Aung, MD, an internist at the University of Rochester Medical Center and author of A Review of the Research. Another theory says the cascade of chemical activity from allergies may cause patients to retain sodium, which raises the risk of hypertension.

Heartburn and Stomach Trouble

Caroline Hill of New York City started having stomach issues a few years ago. "I had diarrhea and bloating and I'd feel like my throat was closing when I ate certain things," she says. She thought she had lactose intolerance and saw a gastroenterologist, who also tested her for celiac disease, but both tests were negative. After she had a particularly frightening reaction one day, she decided to see an allergist. He tested her for 250 allergens and found that she was allergic to barley, corn, shrimp, and mustard seeds. "It made sense because I was eating multigrain sandwiches with mustard," says Hill. She was also diagnosed with eosinophilic esophagitis, an emerging allergic condition that doctors are seeing more and more. People with the illness complain of heartburn-like symptoms and feeling as if they have a lump in the throat, but not the classic symptoms of food allergies like hives, itching or wheezing, explains Dr. Mitchell, who diagnosed Hill. Patients often think they have gastroesophageal reflux disease, but the drugs for GERD don't help. Doctors usually diagnose the condition by doing an endoscopy of the esophagus, but you may want to get tested for food allergies before undergoing this invasive procedure.

Continued on page 3:  Stop Allergies Before They Start

 

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