Monday Medical: The truth about cats, dogs and allergies

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Sometimes in medicine, it is hard to separate fact from fiction. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of myths presented to allergy sufferers. These misunderstandings can prevent people from obtaining the allergy relief they deserve.

Here are a few things physicians hear from patients:

"I am allergic to dogs, but my dog is hypo-allergenic, so I'm fine."

The truth about cats and dogs? About 15 percent to 30 percent of people have a pet allergy. Although many think the source of the allergy is in the hair of the dog (or cat), in most cases, the allergen is found within the skin, or less commonly in the urine or saliva.

The allergen is released into the air as the skin (dander) sheds. This dander, which is fairly sticky, collects on clothes or furniture and can remain allergenic for months. All animals have skin, therefore, there is no dog or cat that is truly nonallergic.

Shorthaired female dogs, however, shed less dander and may produce fewer symptoms. In addition, a person may be allergic to only one particular breed of dog, or to all dogs. Allergy to cats is twice as common as allergy to dogs, and it can be a significant cause of asthma exacerbations.

What about our other furry friends?

"If I am allergic to cats, can I get a pet skunk?" asks Olivia Hobson, 8, of Steamboat Springs. Unfortunately, Olivia, any animal with fur or feathers may produce allergy symptoms. Better to stick with fish, snakes or turtles.

"My nose runs every time I ski. I think I'm allergic to skiing!"

Skier's Nose, or vasomotor rhinitis, is a common problem seen on the slopes of Mount Werner. It is caused by imbalance of nerve stimulation in the nose.

Typically, with exercise, the nose will become dry and less congested. Sometimes, however, cold air or exercise can stimulate the opposite effect - nasal congestion, profuse watery nose and post-nasal drip.

This reaction is not because of allergy - it simply is a reflex (like a knee jerk) that is beyond your control. If cold air is your stimulus, wearing a mask to warm the air can help. In addition, prescription medications can be used prior to exercise to prevent this from happening.

"I am allergic to banana."

You most likely also have an allergy to ragweed. "Oral Allergy Syndrome" occurs in approximately one-third of people with hay fever. Certain pollens and foods have very similar proteins, and immune systems respond similarly to both.

The most common reaction to these foods are itching and burning of the mouth and throat. Those with ragweed allergy may note problems eating one or more of the following foods: banana, cantaloupe, cucumber, honeydew, watermelon and zucchini. Symptoms may be more noticeable during the fall, when ragweed counts are high.

Similar food cross-reactions occur with trees such as alder and birch, as well as grasses. For some of these foods, cooking or peeling may remove or inactivate the allergic response.

"Small children can't get allergies."

Unfortunately, this is not the case. Most allergy in children younger than the age of 2 is caused by food allergy. This often causes colic, but food allergy is a common cause of chronic ear infections as well as stuffy or runny noses. Between the ages of 3 and 6, perennial (year-round) allergens such as dust mite, molds and animals can cause problems. By the age of 6, seasonal pollens begin to cause trouble.

Allergies tend to run in families - children with one parent with an allergy have a one-in-three chance of developing allergy, and those with both parents have a seven-in-10 chance. Only 50 percent of children will outgrow their allergies to pollen, mold and animals.

"Allergy shots don't work."

Good news. Immunotherapy, either through traditional allergy shots or drops placed under the tongue, is effective for hay fever 85 percent of the time. Shots for insect venom (allergies to bees and wasps) are effective 98 percent of the time.

In addition, immunotherapy may improve skin conditions such as eczema in children as well as slow the progression of asthma.

Although there is no "cure" for allergy, there certainly is help. Don't let these myths get between you and your health.

Kristen Fahrner, M.D., is an ear, nose and throat physician in Steamboat Springs practicing at Northwest Colorado Ear Nose Throat and Facial Plastic Surgery.

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