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Surviving Summer Allergies

Nothing could be more disheartening than looking forward to your summer vacation, only to spend it fending off pounding headaches, red, swollen eyes, a stuffy nose and itchy skin rashes, writes Prevashni Naidu. Welcome to allergy season.
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Many people struggle with seasonal allergies, says Durban allergist Dr Ahmed Manjra. “Worldwide, the prevalence of allergic disorders such as asthma, eczema, food allergies and allergic rhinitis has been steadily increasing.”

What’s causing the increase? According to Manjra, a number of contributing factors have led to the creation of a “perfect storm” for sufferers of allergies. “Factors such as urbanisation, increased pollution levels and greenhouse gases are wreaking havoc to some extent, but we are also dealing with lifestyle changes that have cumulatively made allergies so endemic.”

Most significant is the general adoption of a more western lifestyle and diet, and, interestingly, the too-sterile living environment it has manifested. Manjra describes a term called the “hygiene hypothesis”: “Basically, children born into more urban environments are not receiving the levels of stimulation required to build up their immune systems naturally, to fight off the increased levels of allergens we are exposed to in modern-day living. They’re receiving antibiotic treatments way too early in life and are not spending enough time outdoors, to develop a resistance to even common allergens like pollen and dust.”

The outlook is not all doom and gloom, though. According to Manjra, as much as there has been increased allergy prevalence, there have also been a few significant health breakthroughs in the treatment and management of allergies, to the point where they do not interfere with daily living.

Back to basics

Getting back to basics, and understanding whether you have allergies or not, say the experts, is the first step to creating an effective allergy survival plan.

The Allergy Foundation of South Africa (AFSA), describes a person as having a “hypersensitivity” reaction when they have a response to things in the environment that are harmless for most other people. An allergy occurs when the person’s immune system is causing this reaction. A non-immune hypersensitivity reaction is sometimes called an “intolerance”, such as those we have to some foods.

“The first step is for the doctor to hear all the details about a possible reaction. This will help them tell whether the reaction was an allergy or not, and if it was an allergy, what kind of reaction it was, and whether it was mild or severe,” explains allergist Prof Michael Levin of the University of Cape Town.

Manjra suggests keeping a diary of your symptoms and incidences when you believe you were experiencing an allergic reaction.

“The presentation of allergies is usually the same,” outlines homeopath Dr Danny Pillay. “You get redness, itching and swelling. Depending on which part of the body is affected, the symptoms may vary. In hayfever, the redness, swelling and itching affects the eyes and nasal passages. Swelling, irritation and congestion of the mucous membranes in the eye, nose and sinuses cause difficulty in breathing, sneezing and all the eye symptoms.”

You can have tests done to establish whether you are indeed experiencing an immune reaction to allergens. These can be blood tests (the ImmunoCAP) or skin-prick tests. The results of these tests are usually very accurate and define the methods of treatment that should be used.

Manjra explains that there are predominantly two types of allergens: those that are perennial, and active throughout the year, such as household dust mites, and those that are seasonally active, such as high pollen counts, prevalent in spring and summer months.

“Knowing your trigger allergens allows you to take steps to reduce exposure to them. For example, people who are allergic to dust mites should try to reduce the house dust in their homes,” says Levin.

Once the allergen has been identified, treatment options can be investigated. As an example, Pillay explains that once inhalant allergies are discovered, a patient is also monitored for evidence of asthma, as the condition is sometimes linked to an underlying inhalant allergy. “While allergies of the upper respiratory airways (nose, sinuses) and eyes result in hayfever, allergies of the lower respiratory tract can cause asthma.”

Treating your allergy

Treatment options have vastly improved over the last few decades. Treatments include:

  • Antihistamines: These are usually taken orally and reduce many of the uncomfortable allergy symptoms people experience.
  • Nasal sprays: These are often used to treat hayfever or allergic rhinitis by providing sufferers with a dose of anti-inflammatory-containing “corticosteroid”, and should be used daily to help to prevent the underlying swelling and inflammation associated with hayfever symptoms.
  • Medicated eyedrops: There are many different types. Ask your doctor for advice.
  • Inhaler treatments: These include the pumps typically used by asthma sufferers.
  • Allergen immunotherapy: A longer-term allergy treatment breakthrough in recent years is a process known as desensitisation, or immunotherapy, which involves the patient being exposed incrementally to larger doses of the allergen, in order to allow the body to naturally build up a tolerance for it. These treatments, however, can take up to three years.
  • Homeopathic treatments: There are over-the-counter preparations that you can get from health shops and pharmacies. It is advised to visit a homeopath, who will consult with you and prescribe an individual and appropriate medicine for you. Commonly prescribed remedies for hayfever include allium cepa, arsenicum album, natrum muriaticum, arundo donax, merc sol and histaminum.

The key to a living an unhindered, allergy-free lifestyle, says Manjra, is to know your allergen and seek preventive treatment as soon as possible. “We test children of any age. If we begin treatment early enough, there should be no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy a symptom-free holiday, or life,” he adds.

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