07/01/17 — HEALTHY LIVING 2017: Warm winter and hurricane can cause aggravated allergies

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HEALTHY LIVING 2017: Warm winter and hurricane can cause aggravated allergies

By Rochelle Moore
Published in News on July 1, 2017 4:25 PM

Itchy, watery eyes, sneezing and nasal congestion are common reactions during the spring and early summer as plants are blooming.

And typically, if a cold frost doesn't take hold during the previous winter, allergic reactions can be worse, said Dr. J. David Cunningham, an ear, nose and throat physician with Vidant ENT Sinus and Allergy in Goldsboro.

"We never really got a frost, and when you don't get a cold spell, a lot of the molds in the air and in the dirt never die," Cunningham said.

"So, in years when we don't really have a good, cold weather period, the following year tends to (include) worse allergies."

Additional water in the Wayne County area, following Hurricane Matthew in October, and subsequent rainfalls, has also led to an increase in mold in the environment and more allergic reactions, he said.

Allergies, most common in children, can occur at any age. Airborne allergies, resulting from allergens in the environment, start as early as age 4 and continue through age 35, but can lessen over time if consistent exposure occurs, Cunningham said.

"Over decades of time, your body gets less allergic, period," Cunningham said.

"Every decade, you're not as allergic as you were because your body learns, as long as you have some exposure."

Allergic reactions take place when a person's immune system reacts to a foreign substance, like pollen, pet dander or dust.

The allergic response occurs after the immune system produces antibodies that target an allergen, leading to common symptoms, including inflamed sinuses and airways.

The level of reaction also intensifies if someone is exposed to a large amount of the allergen, Cunningham said.

"To a certain extent, the symptoms you get from allergies is because of what happens in that allergic response, and it's dependent on how allergic you are to it and how much you're exposed," he said.

"There's no real allergy season because it depends on what you're sensitive to."

Allergies differ in each person, but are primarily driven by genetics, Cunningham said. Common airborne allergies can include pollen, grass, dust, mold, weeds and animal dander. Some people also have other allergies to such things as food, medicine or items that can irritate the skin.

"Typically, what I tell patients about allergies is that number one, it's a genetically-driven disorder," Cunningham said.

"Allergies run in families. If you have the gene, then you're more predisposed to get these reactions."

The spring and early summer months typically include allergic reactions to grasses and tree pollens, while fall and winter months result in mold, weed pollen and dust allergies.

"Early spring, March through June, is when the grass pollens are high, the tree pollens are high and there's a lot of people who are allergic to those things," Cunningham said.

"Part of the problem in this area is not only do we have the things that are growing, but we've got the farmers tilling up the soil frequently. So, all the molds that are in the soil are getting pulled up in the air every time they till.

"If you're allergic to mold, the worst time is fall and winter. That's when molds are highest."

The first step in combating allergies is avoidance, such as wearing a mask while cutting grass, adding air purifiers in the home, making sure dust is minimal, cleaning heating and air conditioning filters and working to keep allergens off the body.

The next step is to use medicines, which serve to block the body's allergic response, and a nasal steroid spray, which helps reduce a stuffy nose.

If allergies are more severe, some people are prescribed steroid pills, Cunningham said.

Allergic reactions that are not controlled can sometimes lead to more serious problems, including sinusitis, ear infections, chest allergies and asthma, he said.

Allergy tests, which are not always necessary, can identify what a person is allergic to. Vidant ENT Sinus and Allergy provides allergy testing services.

Allergy shots are also available and can serve to reduce symptoms but require a time commitment for regular treatments.

Other ways to reduce allergic reactions include preparing before the spring, fall or winter seasons and using saline spray regularly, which can cut back the amount of allergen exposure.

"If you know what you're allergic to and you prepare before the season that you're exposed, you do OK, but you have to stay ahead of the curve instead of always trying to catch up," Cunningham said.

"One of the things I tell patients that have airborne things that's safe and it's not a medicine, is just use a lot of saline spray because even though you're exposed to the pollens, the longer the pollens are on you, the more trouble you get.

"If you're frequently washing the pollens off of your tissue, you don't react as much."