Seasonal allergies affect more than 35 million people in the U.S., making it one of the most common chronic conditions with no known cure.
Allergies can affect your whole body, not just your nose and eyes. They can cause wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, shortness of breath and eczema, said Weily Soong, M.D., an allergist with Alabama Allergy & Asthma Center, which serves the greater Birmingham area of Alabama.
“All allergy sufferers should consider seeing an allergist/immunologist,” Dr. Soong said. “The right care can make the difference between suffering with an allergic disease and feeling better.”
How familiar are you with what is really making you sneeze? Let’s explore some myths and misconceptions about environmental allergies.
Myth #1: People usually outgrow their environmental allergies
While some children may outgrow certain food allergies, once you develop an allergy to something in your environment, it will likely be with you for life. “The allergies you have in childhood generally don’t go anywhere,” said Maxcie Sikora, M.D., an allergist with Alabama Allergy & Asthma Center.
Some people seem like they have outgrown their allergies because they aren’t as affected by them as adults. But watch out, those allergies are still latent in your system, and may strike again.
“There are some people who seem to build a tolerance over time, but that doesn’t mean the allergies aren’t there. Depending on the pollen count, they may flare at times,” Dr. Sikora said.
Myth #2: If you haven’t developed allergies by now, you’re in the clear
People may become allergic at any age. Not having allergies as a child is no guarantee that you won’t develop allergies as an adult. And not having allergies as an adult doesn’t mean you won’t develop them later in life, Dr. Sikora said. “I think this is a common misconception because I hear people say all the time, ‘I never had allergies as a child, so how can I have this now?’” Dr. Sikora said.
“There is a secondary time period when your immune system may become allergic, and that can happen in your 30s, 40s, or 50s.”
As you move through life, environmental changes, like moving to a new area of the country, or bringing home a new pet, can cause your immune system to become sensitized anew.
“If you adopt a pet, and never had problems before, but now you are exposed to animal dander constantly, you may find that you develop an allergy to that pet,” Dr. Sikora said.
Same thing goes for moving to a new area of the country and being exposed to different pollens, she said.
Myth #3: That yellow pollen that covers your car is to blame for your allergies
For many people, that thick coat of pollen covering the car is a sure sign that itchy eyes and a runny nose are soon to follow. But that yellow pine tree pollen probably isn’t causing your problems; it’s all the other pollen in the air, Dr. Sikora said.
“The majority of the pollen that we are allergic to is too small to see,” she said. Pine pollen is less of a problem because it’s too large to invade your airways. It’s tiny pollen that is carried by the wind that are the biggest offenders.
“You can’t see it, but it gets in your hair and on your clothes,” Dr. Sikora said. “That’s why one of the best things you can do during high pollen season is to change clothes and take a shower when you first get home from the day. It makes a huge difference.”
Myth #4: Eating local honey can help desensitize you to local pollen
Wouldn’t it be nice if a spoonful of honey would help the allergies go away? The problem is, there is no evidence that eating local honey will help you build a tolerance to local pollen, Dr. Sikora said.
But she’s not here to tell you to stop doing it. After all, honey has other properties that help support your immune system. “Honey has strong natural anti-inflammatory properties, so it can be helpful from that standpoint,” she said. “If you have coughing episodes or an illness like laryngitis, honey definitely helps.”
So honey can support your body by helping it regulate inflammation, but it likely won’t make you less allergic, Dr. Sikora said.
“There’s no dosing regimen, and no one can quantify how much honey you’d have to take before you would build a tolerance to local pollen,” she said. “But I do have patients who swear by it.”
Dr. Sikora cautioned against giving honey to younger children and babies, as honey can have botulism spores that can create a toxin in young immune systems. Ask your pediatrician first.
Myth #5: If you take an over-the-counter allergy medication, it can’t hurt to try one with a decongestant
You may be in the habit of reaching for a medication with a decongestant when allergies leave your nose feeling stuffed-up, but using these kinds of oral medications or sinus sprays on a frequent basis can cause a host of other problems.
“Decongestants are addicting,” Dr. Sikora said. “If you use them for a prolonged period to control your congestion, you can become dependent on them, and it can actually trigger rebound congestion.”
Both oral and nasal spray decongestants, such as Sudafed or Sudafed PE, Afrin, or Dristan, work by restricting the blood vessels in your nose and sinuses. Over time, the decreased blood flow can actually cause damage to the cartilage around your nose, Dr. Sikora said.
She recommends using longer-acting antihistamines that you can find over-the-counter, such as Zyrtec, Claritin or Allegra in pill form, or intranasal steroids, such as Flonase or Nasacort.
And last, take your allergy medication at night so it will be in your system in the morning, when you need it most, she said.
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Rachel Zohn is a mom, a wife, and a freelance writer who is striving to find the best way to juggle it all and maintain a sense of humor. She is a former newspaper reporter and a military spouse, so she’s familiar with the stress and anxiety that comes with constant moves and new communities. An insomniac married to an insomniac, she’s spent the last several years on a journey to help her youngest child tackle both migraines and sleep issues. She’s on Twitter at @rachelzohn.