Spring is here and it’s a sure bet allergy sufferers don’t need any reminders that along with the blooming flowers, they now have to deal with itchy eyes, runny or stuffy noses, scratchy throats, tingling ears and dozens of sneezes.

The down and dirty on allergies is that our immune system protects us by fighting off things that can make us sick. If you have an allergy, your immune system has an exaggerated reaction when it comes in contact with foreign substances also known as allergens. This reaction takes the form of sneezing, watery eyes, runny nose, and you know the rest. Those fortunate enough not to have allergies have no reaction to allergens and can mow the lawn without so much as a sneeze.

Advancing at double speed this time of the year, the triggers — pollen, mold, dust, pet dander — are causing allergy sufferers to seek help whether from a doctor, pharmacy or an alternative method of treatment.

The best management for allergies is to avoid these triggers when possible. But, when you like to garden or hike or clean out your garage, let alone hug your cat, what are your alternatives?

Traditional medicine

Dr. Robert Zuckerman of Allergy and Asthma Specialists of Harrisburg in Susquehanna Twp. tells his patients who have allergies that the ideal beginning for dealing with their situation is to get rid of pets, carpets and drapes. He advises them not to smoke or keep windows open.

He recommends wearing protective clothing, wrap-around protective glasses and a hat when outdoors. But, he is the first to admit that these suggestions are typically difficult for most people to follow.

“Antigens are everywhere. You don’t need a cat to become triggered by cat allergens,” he said. “They’re in the air. We laugh at people who wear masks on airplanes, but are they really so crazy? I explain to patients that exposing themselves to allergens challenges their immune system and puts them at risk.”

For those who don’t want to practice avoidance, there are prescriptions and over-the-counter medications — antihistamines and decongestants — that provide general allergy control. “But these medicines can also make you sleepy or give you stomach aches or nose bleeds. No one wants that,” he said.

“Allergy shots are the next step. They are carefully administered in steps to build up your immunity and, after time, extricate existing allergy symptoms.”

Zuckerman’s experience with patients is that they don’t want limitation even though they have allergies. “One of my patient, who is allergic to dogs, is married to a veterinarian. She started shots and now is able to work in her husband’s office.”

Terrie Davis, a registered nurse at Holy Spirit Hospital, has used allergy shots for the past eight years. She started out getting them once a week and now has them administered once a month.

“I took pills for years and am so grateful for the shots,” she said. “I love to garden, and as a nurse I understand how to keep allergens at bay. But, without allergy shots, my life would be so different.”

She has had allergies as long as she can remember, both seasonal and food allergies. After a lifetime of sneezing and suffering, she now understands her triggers and works to limit her exposure to allergens.

After she spends time in the garden, Davis removes all her outdoor gear and throws it in the wash, then immediately showers and shampoos her hair to make sure no allergens are on her.

She also supplements the allergy shots with prescription medication at the start of the gardening season. “About two weeks before the tree pollen starts blooming, I use a prescription nose spray,” she said.

On windy mornings, when the pollen is higher, Davis said she automatically shut her windows and turns on the air conditioner.

When cleaning the house, Davis uses a vacuum with a HEPA filter, which targets small particles and pollutants. To control dust mites, she washes her bed linens in hot water and covers her mattress and pillows in protective cases. “I use non-allergic soap, detergent, dryer sheets and avoid perfume,” she said.

The combination of medication and allergen avoidance helps her keep the symptoms at bay.

Alternative treatment

Licensed acupuncturist Batbayar Damdin of Tian Shi Acupuncture in Lower Paxton Twp. works with people who prefer not to take medication.

“In Chinese medicine, allergies relate to an imbalance in your body,” Damdin said. “These imbalances can be from a variety of causes such as stress, lack of sleep, toxins or diet.” Damdin’s treatments vary with each patient and usually involve six sessions to balance the person’s body and boost the person’s energy, so the body can fight allergens.

Other recommendations he suggests are flushing your nose with a neti pot, which is available in most drug stores, and adding some ginger to your diet, as it is a natural antihistamine and decongestant.

“Apples also help reduce allergy symptoms as do carrots and omega 3,” he said. “Rest is also very important, as is a healthy colon. Add fiber to your diet.”

Managing allergies naturally is important to Kara Shiffer of New Cumberland, a yoga instructor, tri-athlete and allergy sufferer. “I swim, bike, run and manage my allergies in a homeopathic way,” she said. “I don’t let them affect my races.”

Shiffer’s allergies started in college and have continued to progress over the years. Ten years ago, she stopped taking a popular antihistamine and started investigating a different approach.

“I’ve used a neti pot every day for the last five years and it helps tremendously,” she said. “For my immune system, I eat local honey, one teaspoon in the morning in my tea and one teaspoon on toast in the evening. The idea is that local honey is produced from local pollen so taking honey in small doses builds up an immunity in the body.”

“When the air is dry in the mornings, I do my workouts indoors,” Shiffer said. “Recently my allergies were beginning to annoy me, so I started taking a little extra vitamin C and a homeopathic allergy pill I found at the Giant. It’s my decision to set up my own treatment. This is a bad allergy season, but I try to stay on top of my game.”


By Susan Silver Cohen
May 23, 2012