Springtime has arrived and so have spring allergies. The spring is notoriously referred to as the “tree allergy season”. With warmer weather comes the onslaught of tree pollination. Billions of tiny airborne pollen particles are released into the environment and are carried great distances by the winds. As the pollen particles waft through the air they are easily inhaled by allergy sufferers which trigger a series of bothersome symptoms. This condition is sometimes referred to as “Hay Fever,” or seasonal allergic rhinitis, and affects roughly 30 to 60 million people in the United States on an annual basis.
Seasonal allergies can cause a variety of symptoms. The most common include recurrent sneezing, a runny nose, watery/itchy eyes, and nasal or throat congestion. Severe allergies may cause polyps to form in the nose and sinus, further blocking the ability to breathe comfortably through the nose and triggering recurrent sinus infections. Conditions associated with hay fever include asthma, eczema, conjunctivitis, nasal polyps, sinusitis, sleep apnea, laryngitis, and ear infections. Individuals with asthma may become more symptomatic when exposed to tree allergens, and often report increased wheezing, shortness of breath, or coughing. Another strange symptom that may indicate that you have seasonal allergies is itchiness of the mouth and throat after eating raw fruits (apples, bananas). This condition is called oral allergy syndrome and is highly prevalent in individuals with tree allergies such as birch.
The first step in minimizing spring allergies is to determine which trees you are sensitized (or allergic) to. An allergy test determines whether your body has an allergic reaction to a specific substance in the environment, in this case tree pollen. Because tree pollen particles have very unique proteins (and therefore have less cross-over between different types of trees), patients are often tested for several different tree species, usually dependent on which trees are found in their region. A tree allergy test panel for New England may include oak, elm, maple, sycamore, and birch to name a few of the more common tree pollen offenders. Allergy testing can be performed either via a quick pain-free skin test or by a blood test. Both types of testing are safe and can be effective for diagnosing tree allergies, as well as other types of allergies. Skin testing has the advantage of being performed in the office setting, and other benefits may include: immediately available results, the ability to test for multiple tree allergens, and the immediate patient feedback regarding how they react to certain tree pollens in their environment. In preparation for skin testing, patients are advised to discontinue taking antihistamines and other types of medications that may interfere with test results.
Tree allergies can be treated in variety of ways. Firstly, environmental modifications are recommended for anyone who is allergic to pollen. This includes keeping home windows closed, staying indoors on high pollen days, not drying clothing outside, and showering before bedtime. If environmental modifications are not enough, medical management may be necessary. This includes over the counter antihistamines (e.g. Claritin, Zyrtec) and intranasal steroid sprays (e.g. Flonase). Other types of medications include nasal inhaled antihistamines, mast cell stabilizer nasal sprays, and oral decongestants.
For patients who are interested in additional improvement and decreasing their usage of allergy medications, immunotherapy should be considered. Immunotherapy can be given in two different ways, including subcutaneous immunotherapy (SCIT or allergy shots) and sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT or allergy drops). SCIT (allergy shots) has shown repeatedly over the past 50 years to be a very safe and effective way to minimize both seasonal and year round allergies. SLIT (allergy drops) is the most common form of allergy treatment in Europe, and has been shown to be as effective and safe as traditional allergy shots, but has the added benefit of being able to do this treatment in the convenience of your home (you can self-administer the drops daily). The major disadvantage of SLIT is that it is currently not FDA approved in the USA (although the drops are made from the exact same allergy extracts that are used to create the allergy shots), and therefore this treatment would not be covered through medical insurance.
If you or a family member have any concerns regarding spring allergies, please do not hesitate to contact Colden & Seymour Ear Nose Throat and Allergy and schedule an allergy evaluation as your first step towards symptom relief.
Opinions expressed here are those of Dr. Daryl Colden and Christopher Jayne, BA. They are not intended as medical advice and cannot substitute for the advice of your personal physician.