Hay Fever & Seasonal Allergies: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Itchy eyes, a congested nose, sneezing, wheezing and hives: these are symptoms of an allergic reaction to the environment caused when plants release pollen into the air, usually in the spring or fall. A colloquial term for seasonal allergies — and the inflammation of the nose and airways (and all that comes with it) — is hay fever, but that's a misnomer — those suffering from hay fever almost never get a fever, and hay is not the culprit. Doctors and researchers prefer the term "allergic rhinitis."

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Why Do Some People Develop Allergies as Adults?

Some children seem to outgrow allergies. But adults who have never had problems with pollen suddenly can start suffering the runny nose and itchy eyes of hay fever. To find out why, we turned to James Sublett, president-elect of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, and a practicing immunologist in Louisville, Ky. (Coincidentally, Louisville was identified by medical experts as the most challenging city for allergy sufferers for 2014.)

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The Case Against Antibacterial Soap

It's been ingrained in us since childhood. Don't want to get sick? Wash your hands with antibacterial soap. But the same compound we entrust to fend off the sniffles could actually be harming us—and creating an army of superbugs in the process. It's time to ban antibacterial soap.

If that sounds farfetched or alarmist, it shouldn't. In fact, it's already happening. Just this past Tuesday, Minnesota became the first state to ban antibacterial soaps loaded with something called triclosan, a nasty little chemical that comes with a whole host of problems. And you can find it in about 75% of all liquid soaps on the market.

Other states are almost certain to follow in Minnesota's footsteps, but even that ruling doesn't officially go into effect until 2017. So there's a good chance that you'll be seeing the stuff on drug store shelves for years to come. If you do, steer clear.

It Doesn't Actually Help

Ever since triclosan-inclusive products made their way into the home in the 90s, we've put the stuff in everything from liquid soaps and makeup to cutting boards and mattress pads.

Considering how prevalent the chemical is in our daily lives, it may surprise you that the FDA has never observed evidence that triclosan-based "antibacterial" soap has any benefit over non-drug-laced varieties. Even though the FDA published guidelines for chemicals in liquid soaps back in 1978, the agency never actually got around to finalizing them—meaning soap companies have never had any federally mandated rules to follow regarding chemical additives.

What the original 1978 draft did find, though, was that triclosan was totally ineffective. The FDA may not have proven definitively yet that antibacterial soap is safe, but they have proven, after 42 years of research and independent studies, it has zero health benefits over normal soap and water.

That's right: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration states outright that triclosan soaps are no more beneficial to a user's health than the regular, non-antibacterial soaps our grandparents lathered up with. Straight from the agency itself:

FDA has not received evidence that the triclosan provides an extra benefit to health. At this time, the agency does not have evidence that triclosan in antibacterial soaps and body washes provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water.

And despite your elementary school flu season training, washing your hands with antibacterial soap won't help you stave off that fever. As the name might imply, antibacterial soap targets bacteria—which are a different animal from the viruses that cause the common cold and flu.

Frequent hand washing is a very good idea when contagious diseases are floating around, but it's the washing, not the triclosan, that lessens your chance of getting sick. Using an antibacterial drug to fight a virus is like setting mouse traps to get rid of ants.

But It Might Hurt

As it turns out, triclosan is good at something; it helps fight gingivitis. But unless you're brushing your teeth with Dawn (please don't), that doesn't mean it belongs in soap. The reality is that antibacterial soap isn't really doing you any good; in fact, it's more likely that it's causing harm.

In multiple animal studies, triclosan has been shown to disrupt the endocrine system, the complex interplay of hormones that regulate most aspects of an animal's growth and reproduction. Exposure to triclosan has been shown to reduce sperm count in male fish, speed up the onset of puberty in female mice, and decrease the presence of thyroid hormones in male rats. Because of these findings in animal studies, the FDA and EPA are collaborating on research to study the drug's effect on the human endocrine system.

There's already some evidence of human side effects, though: a small study in Norway showed that children with higher concentrations of triclosan in their urine (a measure of triclosan exposure) were more likely to develop seasonal allergies.

Just this past December, the FDA issued a proposed ruling that would require antibacterial soap manufacturers to prove—with actual data—that their products "are safe for long-term daily use and more effective than plain soap and water in preventing illness and the spread of certain infections." So while the FDA isn't ringing alarm bells quite yet, it clearly thinks there's more to triclosan and compounds like it than what we currently know.

It's an Environmental Mess

We're not just hurting ourselves with our antibacterial soap addiction, though; it could also be doing harm to the world around us.

Not only is triclosan rinsed down our drains in enormous quantity, it's also used in some types of pesticides, meaning the compound finds its way into our waterways via sewage treatment plants and trickle-down filtration. The EPA says that triclosan may attach to suspended solids and sediments in waterways, meaning that critters higher on the food chain could carry higher concentrations of the compound, which is a problem when it reaches the creatures we catch and eat.

But it's not just the animals. Some studies have shown that plants grown in environments contaminated with triclosan actually soak up the compound and metabolize it, creating a bevy of new triclosan-embedded compounds that scientists are only just beginning to monitor in the plants that we eat.

In fact, our antibacterial soap is probably doing a much better job killing ocean life than anything living on our skin. According to a recent study, triclosan is 100 to 1,000 times more effective "in inhabiting and killing algae, crustaceans, and fish" than they are at killing microbes. Which is good news if you hate our ocean friends and bad news for everyone else.

And Leaves Us Vulnerable

As if all that wasn't enough bad news, it gets worse. Slathering everything we own in a layer of triclosan could very likely be the genesis of an antibacterial-resistant superbug.

Of course, that's an inherent risk when any antibacterial compound gets widespread use. Bacteria will almost always develop ways to resist a drug, regardless of how it's deployed. Life finds a way! The problem is, when a drug is everywhere, as triclosan seems to be, developing resistances happens at a wildly quicker rate.

And it doesn't end there. When bacteria develop resistance to one drug, that resistance often extends to other, similar drugs. We're already seeing some bacteria with resistance to triclosan, and researchers fear that triclosan-resistant strains of e. coli and salmonella could also become resistant to the heavy-duty antibacterial drugs used to fight serious bacterial infections in a hospital setting.

So what's the answer? Just use regular soap. The cold, hard truth is that antibacterial soaps don't carry any real benefit. And the companies that make them have known this all along. Take a close look at anyantibacterial soap label the next time you're at the grocery store. It'll probably say something like "kills 99.9% of the most common bacteria."

Not "all" bacteria. Not "the really nasty, mess you up bacteria." Just "the most common bacteria." The normal flora that's always present on your skin and that (barring a few rare, serious medical conditions) isn't going to cause you any problem. In fact, a good, vigorous scrubbing with regular ol' soap and water will pretty much obliterate any germs you're looking to expunge.

So the next time you see your kid coming home covered in dirt, you'll still need to wash them (for god's sake wash them), but leave the antibacterial soap where it belongs—wasting away on some drug store shelf, waiting for the FDA to drop the boom.


By Ashley Feinberg and Robert Sorokanich
May 22, 2014

'Allergy-Friendly' Airline Is Now A Thing Thanks To Swiss International Air Lines

Swiss International Air Lines is taking one step toward a more allergy-friendly travel experience, and they mean business. The airline is the first of its kind to be certified as "allergy-friendly" by the European Centre for Allergy Research Foundation.

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Bless You: Allergy Sufferers Having A Worse Spring Than Normal

BALTIMORE (WJZ) — Another health warning as an especially bad allergy season hits Maryland hard. Doctors are seeing a spike in cases–and it may be a result of that polar vortex we dealt with this winter.

Christie Ileto has more on what’s being called the “pollen vortex.”

If surviving winter’s brutal blast wasn’t enough, allergy sufferers are barely getting by this spring.

“The worst part of it is the sneezing, the sniffing and the runny nose,” said Jim Connolly.

He isn’t alone. Dr. Baruch Friedman says many Marylanders are on track for a nasty allergy season.

“We’ve seen a much higher number of calls over these last couple of weeks,” he said. “We’ve had an incredibly prolonged and severe winter. What’s now happening is we’re getting the seasons coming together.”

Health experts say because of the polar vortex, many of the trees here in Maryland bloomed later and what that means for people who have allergies is that they will be experiencing tree and grass allergies at the same time.

“There’s a lot of grass; there’s a lot of pollen,” said allergy sufferer H.R. Cook. “The seasons are kind of mixed up this year.”

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, between 40 and 50 million Americans are affected by allergies. Eight percent of adults suffer from pollen allergies, including hay fever.

“Miserable. It’s hard to focus sometimes,” said Ronnie Lindo.

But with Mother Nature to blame, all allergy sufferers can do is weather the pollen storm.

Doctors recommend those with allergies consider allergy medications or injections to help build immunity and reduce allergic reactions.


By Christie Ileto
May 19, 2014

4 Ways To Pollen-Proof Your Workouts

There’s bad news for allergy sufferers this year: The so-called polar vortex has given way to a pollen vortex. “A long, harsh winter can lead to a tidal wave of pent-up pollen being released all at once,” says Michael Foggs, M.D., president of the American College of ­Allergy, Asthma and ­Immunology. Still, that doesn’t mean you have to spend the whole season on the treadmill instead of the track. Follow these strategies to make your outdoor time sniffle-free:

Watch the weather. Counts tend to be highest from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m., but “some studies suggest pollen counts in certain parts of the country are higher in the afternoon,” Foggs says. And beware of dry, windy days. Wind vectors can carry pollen up to 400 miles. “Even if you’re nowhere near the plants that trigger your ­allergies, their pollens will find you,” he says. The ideal time to head outdoors: after a rainfall, which can wash pollen out of the air.

Protect your peepers. Your lashes or the creases around your eyes can trap pollen, leading to redness, itching, and irritation. To help block out allergens, wear wrap-around sunglasses or sports goggles during your workout.

Stay covered. Pollen and other environmental allergens can easily collect in your hair, too, especially if you wear gel, mousse, or hair spray. Wear a sun hat or baseball cap (they’ll help ward off sunburns, too).

Hit the shower. Before you go inside, slip out of your workout clothes and park your sneakers at the door, so you don’t track allergens into the house. You should also shower and wash your hair immediately after exercising to decrease your pollen load, suggests Foggs.


By Karen Asp
May 17, 2014

7 Ways Pets Improve Your Health

When you come home to a purr or wagging tail at the end of a stressful day, the sudden wave of calm you feel isn’t just your imagination. Research suggests that your fluffy friend truly is good for your physical and mental health. “Pets often provide unconditional acceptance and love and they’re always there for you,” says Gary A. Christenson, MD, chief medical officer at Boynton Health Service at the University of Minnesota. “There is a bond and companionship that makes a big difference in mental health,” not to mention the extra exercise you get from walks and playtime. Read on to learn the surprising ways your pet can boost your health.

Pets may lower your cholesterol

If you have a dog, those daily walks are helping to keep your cholesterol in check, says Rebecca A. Johnson, PhD, director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine. Plus, a survey by the Australian National Heart Foundation revealed that people who own pets, especially men, tend to have lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

Pets help relieve stress

Simply being in the same room as your pet can have a calming effect. “A powerful neurochemical, oxytocin, is released when we look at our companion animal, which brings feelings of joy,” says Johnson. “It’s also accompanied by a decrease in cortisol, a stress hormone.” Through her research with veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Johnson has witnessed the powerful effects of animals. “One veteran couldn’t leave his home without his wife until we placed a dog with him and in less than a week he was able to go around his town,” she says.

Pets may reduce your blood pressure

It’s a win-win: petting your pooch or kitty brings down blood pressure while pleasing your pet. Researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo discovered that in people already taking medication for hypertension, their blood pressure response to stress was cut by half if they owned a cat or dog.

Pets boost your fitness

A dog is the best companion for a stroll—even better than a friend. Johnson—co-author of Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound—led a study at the University of Missouri that found that dog walkers improved their fitness more than people who walked with other people. A separate study found that dog owners walked 300 minutes a week on average, while people who didn’t own dogs walked just 168 minutes a week. And a study in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health found that not only did dog owners walk more than non-owners, they were also 54% more likely to meet the recommended levels of physical activity.

Pets reduce your cardiovascular disease risk

Lower cholesterol, stress, and blood pressure levels combined with increased fitness may add up to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. That’s a theory supported by the American Heart Association. In 2013, the AHA reviewed numerous studies examining the effects of pet ownership on cardiovascular disease risk and concluded that having a furry friend, particularly a dog, is associated with a reduction in risk and increased survival among patients.

Pets may prevent allergies in children

If you had a pet as a kid, you may be in luck. In a study published in Clinical & Experimental Allergy, children who were exposed to pets before they were six months old were less likely to develop allergic diseases, hay fever, and eczema as they got older. “In the first year of life, babies who are exposed to dogs in the household are more likely not to have allergies, asthma, and fewer upper respiratory infections,” says Johnson. “If exposed at an early age to dander and allergens, we may be less reactive to them over time.” And kids who grow up around farm animals, dogs, or cats typically have stronger immune systems and a reduced risk of developing asthma or eczema.

Pets relieve depression

Pets can provide social support for their owners, who tend to have better overall wellbeing than non-owners, according to a study published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. And a large review of studies by the British Psychological Society found that dogs especially promote therapeutic and psychological wellbeing, particularly lowering stress levels and boosting self-esteem, as well as feelings of autonomy and competence. “The calming presence and the social bond that pets bring can be very powerful,” says Dr. Christenson. “Animals give something to focus on instead of the negative thoughts a depressed person is prone to have. When a pet pays attention to you, they’re giving you unconditional love and acceptance.”


Celia Shatzman


How Climate Change Is Making Allergies Worse

Thanks to all the pollen in the air, I spent the last few weeks coughing, wheezing and blowing my nose. Austin is infamous for bad allergy seasons. We have three of them: fall, winter, and spring. In the summer, it’s too hot for pollen (but the heat gives me something else to complain about).

Other Texas cities may have even stronger allergy seasons. And it could all get worse thanks to global climate change.

An little-noticed part of the National Climate Assessment, released yesterday by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, explains how: climate change results in “more frost-free days and warmer seasonal air temperatures,” according to the report. That can mean longer pollen seasons.


Even worse news for allergy sufferers is this tidbit: “Increased carbon dioxide [CO2] by itself can elevate production of plant-based allergens … Higher pollen concentrations and longer pollen seasons can increase allergic sensitizations and asthma episodes … and diminish productive work and school days.”

In a nutshell: plants eat CO2; more plants mean more pollen; and more pollen means worse allergies.

To back up its statements, the assessment cites a 2011 study showing how ragweed allergy seasons have lengthened in parts of North America.

That study says:

“… Data indicate a significant increase in the length of the ragweed pollen season by as much as 13 – 27 d at latitudes above ∼44°N since 1995. This is consistent with recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projections regarding enhanced warming as a function of latitude. If similar warming trends accompany long-term climate change, greater exposure times to seasonal allergens may occur with subsequent effects on public health.”


It’s interesting to note that ragweed pollen actually decreased in Texas (as measured in Georgetown) during the time sampled for the report. But its increase in more northern climates was so dramatic they offset that decrease.

That suggests climate change might improve allergy conditions, at least for some plant species in some regions. But before Texas allergy sufferers throw out their kleenex, it would behoove them to note the part of the assessment that says “simultaneous exposure to toxic air pollutants can worsen allergic responses.”

So, even in places where there’s less pollen, there could be more sneezin’.


By Mose Buchele
May 8, 2014

Asthma Linked to Bone Loss in Study

HealthDay News -- People with asthma could be at higher risk of bone loss, new research suggests. 

But it's not clear how the two conditions might be related.

"We know prolonged use of corticosteroids in the treatment of asthma is a risk factor of osteoporosis, but we haven't had definite data showing the relationship between asthma itself and bone loss," study author Dr. Jae-Woo Jung said in a news release from the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI).

"This study has shown a meaningful association between the two conditions, even in the absence of previous oral corticosteroid use," noted Jung.

The researchers studied more than 7,000 people, including 433 with asthma. They found that bone density in the lumbar spine and femur was significantly lower in those with asthma.

"It is difficult to pinpoint the cause of bone loss in this subset of patients," said allergist Dr. John Oppenheimer in a statement provided by the ACAAI.

"Reasons can include corticosteroid use, low levels of vitamin D or even race. This research has unveiled findings that need be further studied," he said.

Although steroid treatments for asthma may be a possible link to bone loss, no one should stop taking these drugs without talking to their doctor.

"Asthma is a serious disease that can be life-threatening," Oppenheimer said. "It is important that those with asthma and other breathing problems continue their prescribed treatment. It is also imperative that allergists discuss the potential of the disease itself or as a consequence of therapy in asthma sufferers."

Side effects from corticosteroid treatment are generally more evident with oral forms of the drugs instead of inhaled, though oral steroids are more effective. Doctors prescribe inhaled corticosteroids whenever possible. If oral corticosteroids are necessary, doctors will prescribe the lowest effective dose to help avoid side effects, according to the ACAAI news release.

The study appears in the May issue of Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.


By Randy Dotinga
May 7, 2014

Why Are My Allergies So Bad?

It’s being called the “Pollen Vortex” of allergy seasons and we have the blood shot eyes and difficulty breathing to prove it (or is that just due to lack of sleep now that my twins are in “big girl” beds?). Breezy Mama turned to Dr. Jill Bryson, MD, primary care physician at Benton Family Clinic, to find out why this allergy season is particularly brutal, the symptoms that you have allergies and the safest treatments.

Why are allergies so bad for people this year?

There was an exceptionally harsh winter this year, with record-setting snowfall in some regions and extended below-freezing temperatures. This elongated winter meant late flowering for trees. As a result, trees had less time to pollinate, causing higher than normal amounts of pollen to be released all at once. This phenomenon is being referred to as the “pollen vortex”.

What are symptoms it’s allergies and not a cold or other illness?

The duration of symptoms is an important indicator. A cold typically lasts 3-14 days whereas allergy symptoms will remain for as long as the allergen is present. If you experience symptoms for longer than two weeks, you should see your primary care physician and request an allergy test.

Another indicator is the color of the mucus. If you are producing large amounts of yellow mucus, it is likely a cold.

What do you recommend to relieve allergies?

Patients that suffer from allergies should discuss care and treatment options with their primary care physician or family doctor. A primary care physician can test, diagnose and provide patients with accessible treatment options. If you have allergies for more than three months out of the year, talk to your doctor about allergy testing and immunotherapy (allergy shots). Immunotherapy treats the root cause of allergies, as opposed to over-the-counter medications (such as Claritin) that only mask symptoms. This means that patients taking immunotherapy will eventually build up an immune response to their allergens, so they don’t need to take ongoing medication. Another added benefit of allergy shots is customization. Unlike immunotherapy tablets that only treat one allergen at a time, allergy shots can be customized to treat all of your allergies simultaneously.

When I take an over the counter med, I get a little pain in my chest. Are there gentler solutions?

If you are experiencing pain from your medications, you should try a different method. There are a number of ways that allergy sufferers can both treat and minimize their symptoms. You may want to consider the following:

· Avoid your allergen: Once you know what allergen is causing a reaction, avoid contact! If you’re allergic to pollen, stay indoors in the morning/evening when pollen counts are at their highest.

· Clean House: Dust and mold are two of the most common allergens. If your allergy test shows you’re allergic to these, wash bedding in hot water to eliminate dust mites and other allergy triggers.

· Shower at night: Pollen in the air builds up on your clothes and hair throughout the day. Minimize your symptoms by showering in the early evening.

· Exercise at night: Pollen counts are highest in the morning so allergy sufferers should try to avoid outdoor exercise at this time.

Who offers the seasonal allergy shots and where can people get them?

Primary care physicians can deliver allergy shots that dramatically impact the quality of life for allergy sufferers. United Allergy Services (UAS) enables primary care physicians, pulmonologists, pediatricians and internal medicine physicians to provide their patients with customized allergy shots that patients can administer themselves at home. This means no more trips back and forth to the allergist’s office and within three to five years you could be symptom free. For seasonal and perennial allergy sufferers, self-administered immunotherapy under the guidance of a primary care physician allows a broader population of patients to receive high-quality, affordable, safe, allergy care so these patients can resume active, full, healthy lifestyles.

What do you recommend as the safest treatment for adults with allergies?

For both children and adults, the first step is to talk to your primary care physician about allergy testing. Allergy testing will allow you to identify and avoid your specific offending allergens. Such “avoidance therapy” in itself may diminish symptoms by as much as 50 percent. If ongoing treatment is necessary, I recommend immunotherapy. The safety of immunotherapy has been proven by more than a century of scientific research and medical practice. Furthermore, it is the only treatment that addresses the actual cause of allergies rather than the symptoms. Immunotherapy has also been shown to decrease the development and onset of new allergies and decrease the risk of developing allergic asthma.

What is the safest treatment for kids suffering from seasonal allergies?

Avoidance is a safe technique but it is generally impractical for kids. Kids should be enjoying life outdoors not suffering from seasonal allergies. I generally recommend immunotherapy.

Anything else you’d like to share about allergy season?

More than anything, be sure to talk to your doctor. Too many people are suffering unnecessarily from allergies and self-medicating. Schedule an appointment with your family doctor or discuss your symptoms during your next appointment. Don’t miss out on outdoor fun this year. Talk to your doctor and get tested.


By Chelsea Gladden
May 5, 2014