PAMF Health Blog

Be Well, Be Well Informed

When Allergies Take Over – What Can You Do?

Posted on May 19, 2011

Springtime in the Bay Area always brings a typical surge in hay fever.  Adults note itchy eyes and noses with congestion.  Children get puffy, cough, and rub their eyes and noses (even though many will tell you they feel fine).  People of all ages with asthma begin wheezing again, and many people start scheduling an appointment to been seen by a doctor.  In the last few weeks, the allergies have seemed particularly severe here in the Bay Area, and I have seen many patients each day with symptoms triggered from their allergies.

This is likely related to the increase in extremely wet whether we have had, but the wind can also stir more pollen into the air, as well.  At times, and in certain locations, the pollen can get so dense that it can irritate noses and throats in people who usually don’t have ANY allergies.  This seems to be one of those seasons.

Pollen comes from reproducing plants, and in heavily landscaped areas where many of us live, these abound – creating a problem for suburbanites with allergies, as we often have very dense pollen counts that are higher than in rural areas.  Many people want to know which pollens they are allergic to, but it often turns out not to matter  unless you need allergy shots.  If you are allergic to the redwood tree outside your office or your neighbor’s heritage tree, what can you do to avoid these?  Not much.  Even worse, on windy days, the source plant could be miles away.   Knowing your trigger season is usually much more important than knowing your trigger plants.  This helps people prepare a few weeks in advance.

I imagine that almost everyone reading this article knows someone afflicted with hay fever or seasonal allergies.  When it’s your season, there are some simple things that can help:

1.     First, concentrate on your bedroom, since adults spend 1/3 of their lives in bed, and kids up to half of their time there.

  • Try to go to bed clean and free of pollens.
  • Bathe before bed and wear clean bedclothes to keep a better distance between your nose and the offending particles.
  • If it is or has been windy, keep your windows closed.
  • An air purifier can help in the bedroom if you want to splurge but many times just keeping the inside and outside air separate can help.

2.      For many, saline irrigation in the nose, such as a neti pot, can help – but this needs to be done often.  (If anyone finds a child under age 10 that will do this routinely, you are an amazing parent and should get your child on the Letterman show ASAP!) Adults seem to get used to it very quickly and can see great effects.

3.      Generic medications are often quite effective.  Over-the-counter antihistamines are safe and are the usual first medications to try, but remember to read the directions on each bottle.  Products like cetirizine (Zyrtec) and loratadine (Claritin) offer all-day relief to millions of people and have very few side effects.  Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) is stronger, but makes most people tired and only lasts six hours.  An over the counter eye-drop, Naphcon-A, can help provide relief from itchy eyes if you can get past the intimidating name.  If these don’t work, you may wish to contact your doctor for help.

4.      If you do plan to see your doctor for seasonal allergy symptom relief, note that the Bay Area spring usually ends mid June, but if it doesn’t rain all summer the same pollens can get stirred up again in the fall when it gets windy.  The medication to help relieve hay fever symptoms is usually a nose spray prescribed at your doctor’s visit.

And finally, here is a tip for those who’ve read this far and plan to use a nose spray – make sure you lean way over and look at your toes when nose-spraying.  So many people tell me their nose spray doesn’t work and it’s because they are spraying straight up towards their eyelashes.  The bottle should be perpendicular to your face and aimed towards the top of your neck.  This means you have to bend way over to keep the bottle straight up and down.  One of our allergists calls this the “nose-to-toes technique,” and my elementary school patients like it much more than the neti pot, trust me.

Dr. Kellen Glinder is a board-certified pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. His professional interests include asthma and allergy care,  Wilderness Medicine, and health information technology (HIT). In his spare time, he enjoys getting out in nature in a variety of forms: hiking, biking, running, swimming – and generally making a mess with his kids. You can also follow Dr. Glinder on Twitter at @drglinder.