Spring is in the air, and so is a lot of annoying pollen. That means many North Carolinians are sniffling and sneezing as their eyes water and throats scratch. It's estimated that 1 in 5 people suffers from allergic rhinitis.
"The most common allergens right now are tree pollens," says Dr. Maya Jerath, an assistant professor in the Division of Rheumatology, Allergy and Immunology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, director of the Adult Allergy Clinic there and member of the UNC Thurston Arthritis Research Center.
But don't blame pine pollen, which covers most of the Old North State with a green dust this time of year.
"People attribute their allergies to pine pollen because it's visible, but it's actually too large to cause allergies," Jerath explains. "It's the other trees blooming at the same time like maple, oak and birch."
Allergy season lasts from late February to late April, but most people suffer only for a couple of weeks while the tree they're sensitive to is in bloom. Folks with multiple allergies may experience symptoms longer, however.
Most allergy sufferers can find relief from an over-the-counter antihistamine. "Medicines containing diphenhydramine - like Benadryl - are very effective," Jerath says. "But, these act for a short period of time, and they can make you sleepy." Longer-lasting alternatives are loratidine (Claritin) or cetirizine (Zyrtec), which typically don't cause drowsiness and come in once-a-day formulas.
If you have short-lived allergies for only two or three weeks a year, it's fine to treat them symptomatically. "But if the medicine is not sufficient to keep you from suffering, or if you cannot tolerate the medicine, it's time to go to the doctor," Jerath says. "There are many prescription medications that work well for allergies. Similarly, if your symptoms last for more than a season, you can see a doctor to find out what you might be allergic to, and to see if you're a candidate for immunotherapy - a treatment that aims to cure allergies."
Children with allergies and asthma may also benefit from an allergy evaluation. Controlling allergy symptoms can help asthma control and also can prevent some of the common complications of untreated allergies like sinusitis and ear infections.
Some sufferers seek relief with supplements like Vitamin C or zinc. "These supplements may help with colds, but there are no studies showing they work for allergic rhinitis," Jerath notes. "However, nasal saline rinses can be helpful in mitigating symptoms because they minimize exposure by clearing out any allergens that might be present. In addition, there are a few small studies that show regular use of these rinses can change the cells lining your nose making it less prone to inflammation, which creates that stuffy feeling."
The best way to reduce the impact of seasonal allergies is to avoid exposure, but, Jerath admits, "It's unrealistic to tell people not to go outside. Pollen's not something you can turn off, but if you know which pollen you're sensitive to, you can minimize your time outside during the season it is in the air and keep your windows closed."