Monday Medical: Allergens spread by autumn winds

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This column has been updated since its original publication in September 2009.

Achoo! Fall allergy symptoms of stuffy nose, watery eyes, itching and sneezing may have you running to your local pharmacy for relief or begging for an early winter.

These allergy symptoms, often called “hay fever,” most commonly are triggered from wind-borne pollen that is produced by weeds from late August through the first frost.

The major offender for fall allergy sufferers is ragweed. However, anyone who feels surrounded by fields of sagebrush, sorrel and Russian thistle (to name a few other pesky plants) understands that there is no short supply of offending weeds in the Yampa Valley.

When an allergic individual inhales this pollen, his or her immune system mistakenly identifies it as a foreign invader, such as a bacteria or virus. This causes a chain of inflammatory events, ultimately resulting in the runny nose, itchy eyes and sneezing.

Chronic throat pain, ear fullness, cough, eczema and asthma exacerbations also are common.

How can you treat these miserable symptoms? The first step is to know what your allergy triggers are. An allergist can uncover these with specific testing and help you to understand how to minimize your exposure to these offending allergens.

The second step in controlling your allergy symptoms is to mask them with the use of medicines. The two most common groups of medicines are antihistamines and nasal steroid sprays.

Antihistamines, which come in many forms, are designed to reduce the inflammation caused by the allergen. These medications frequently will decrease the amount of sneezing and itching experienced. They can be used as needed during the allergy season.

Intranasal steroid sprays, on the other hand, are best started one month before the onset of the allergy season and continued daily through the season. The steroid spray works locally in the nose to reduce congestion and post nasal drip.

If masking measures do not help, or you simply do not like the daily hassle of taking medicines, then you may be a candidate for the third method of treatment — immunotherapy.

Immunotherapy is the only option available that can reduce your symptoms for the long term. It does this by addressing the underlying cause of your symptoms, the inflammation caused by antigen exposure.

Treatment involves giving you small but increasing doses of the antigen to “sensitize” your immune system to the antigen, so that less inflammation is produced with exposure. Immunotherapy, which can be used in children and adults, is proven successful in reducing allergy symptoms.

Autumn is a wonderful time of year — a time for being outdoors, immersed in nature’s most vivid and pleasant season. It is a shame that this gift often is stolen from allergy sufferers.

With the right guidance and treatment, fall can be yours to embrace once again.

Kristen Fahrner, M.D., of Northwest Colorado Ear, Nose, Throat & Facial Plastic Surgery in Steamboat Springs, is a board-certified otolaryngologist and fellow of the American Academy of Otolaryngic Allergy.

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