If you live in Richmond, Virginia, you know it is spring when friends and family start to complain about itchy, watering eyes, sneezing, and scratchy throats. This reaction is sometimes called "hay fever." While seasonal allergies are often just accepted and handled here, there’s more to it for many people.
Here’s how allergies attack your body, and how they can interfere with other medical conditions such as asthma, sleep apnea, upper respiratory infections, and chronic sinus infection.
In a healthy body, the immune system monitors for foreign substances and reacts when something dangerous enters your system, such as for example the common cold virus. Sometimes, however, the body becomes sensitive to something that we might typically consider harmless, such as grass or pet dander.
When this sensitivity triggers a cascade of allergic activation, the body produces histamines and different inflammatory substances leading to symptoms such as a runny and or congested nose, itchy, red or watery eyes, post-nasal drainage, headache, sneezing, or cough.
The most common allergens we see in our practice include pollen, mold, pet dander, and dust mite. These allergies lead to uncomfortable, sometimes chronic symptoms such as frequent upper respiratory infections, ear infections, and sometimes recurrent sinusitis or bronchitis (typically driven by underlying asthma).
How Allergies Affect Other Health Conditions
While allergies are uncomfortable in and of themselves, they can also cause problems with other health conditions. Because allergic reactions kick off the inflammatory process in the nose, sinus, and ears, they can exacerbate other conditions that cause inflammation in the body:
- In people with asthma, inhaling the allergen activates the body’s inflammatory mediators and sets off a reactive airway process that leads to wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and coughing.
- Chronic nasal congestion from allergy leads to mouth breathing, putting some people at a greater predisposition to snoring, sleep apnea, poor restorative sleep, and poor tolerance of the CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine used to treat sleep apnea. Allergies and nasal congestion can make it difficult to evaluate and treat sleep apnea because of the limited airflow through the nose.
- Patients with recurrent sinusitis may have difficulty identifying whether the cause of congestion is an anatomic issue that may need surgical repairs like a deviated septum, acute allergies, or both. Treating allergies may negate the need for sinus surgery.
- Optimizing control of seasonal and perennial allergies reduces the frequency and severity of upper respiratory infections, including ear, throat, and sinus infections.
Getting Help With Allergies
An ENT doctor with a specialization in allergy, asthma, and immunology can help you manage your allergies in several different ways. There are many proactive/preventative approaches that will help you determine an accurate diagnosis and manage your allergy symptoms:
- Clinical history and exam can help your doctor better understand your symptoms and their cause
- A sinus CT scan can help your doctor rule out anatomic or structural causes of your symptoms
- A skin or blood allergy test will measure your histamine or antibody response to certain substances and help you identify your allergens
- Medications such as intranasal steroids, intranasal antihistamines, oral antihistamines, or leukotriene blockers can help you alleviate your symptoms
- Immunotherapy treatments such as allergy shots (subcutaneous), under the tongue drops (sublingual), and oral tablets can help you alleviate your symptoms by treating the cause and creating a tolerance to the allergen
Don’t let chronic allergies upset the quality of your life or that of your loved ones.