How to Deal with Allergies by Dr. Lakiea Wright, MD MAT MPH

Dr. Lakiea Wright is the Medical Director of U.S. Clinical Affairs in the Immunodiagnostics Division at Thermo Fisher Scientific and a board-certified physician in internal medicine and allergy and immunology. She is a staff physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Let's say you have itchy, watery eyes every spring, and testing has confirmed what you've long suspected: You have a pollen allergy. Coming up with a treatment plan may seem daunting at first, since pollen is everywhere. That said, it is possible to minimize symptoms of just about any allergy-including environmental allergies-with or without medications. Here's some helpful information on how to keep allergies from slowing you down.

Tip 1: Talk to your healthcare provider about your allergies

Start by sharing a detailed history of your symptoms, including when the symptoms arise (time of day and time of year), whether you take medications for your symptoms, and whether those medications help.

If it's not 100 percent clear what provokes your symptoms, then you should feel empowered to ask for allergy testing. Some healthcare providers may not suggest allergy testing themselves, because they believe their patients have an intuitive understanding of their symptoms. However, up to 80 percent of people with allergies are sensitized to multiple things, making it complicated to track symptoms back to the specific sources.1 Allergy testing helps clarify the symptom-and-source relationship, so you can respond to the right allergens and get more relief.

If you already have an idea of which allergens irritate your system, then you can work with your healthcare provider to create a maximally effective treatment plan. You might start by asking the following questions:

  • What are the treatment options?
  • Should I be taking an antihistamine?
  • If I should be taking an antihistamine, should I take it on a daily basis?
  • Aside from the antihistamine, are there any other medications I should take?
  • If medications don't help, what's the next step?
  • Am I a candidate for allergy shots?
  • Your treatment plan will likely involve both medications and lifestyle choices, which get the best results when applied together.

    Tip 2: Make lifestyle adjustments to optimize allergen exposure reduction.

    People with food allergies need to avoid ingesting (and sometimes touching) certain ingredients, but people with environmental allergies may find it trickier to avoid their triggers. In most places, it can be nearly impossible to completely avoid airborne allergens like pollen and grass. It still helps to minimize contact with your allergens because below a certain level of exposure to allergens-called your symptom threshold-you won't experience any symptoms. If your exposure to allergens crosses your symptom threshold, you'll start to sneeze, itch, and cough-whatever your reaction may be.

    So, how can you stay below your symptom threshold if you're sensitized to something in your environment? It depends on your allergens. Here are tips for tackling the most common ones:2

    Tip 3: Find out which medications, if any, could alleviate symptoms

    Individuals with seasonal allergies might take over-the-counter antihistamines or nasal steroid sprays starting one or two weeks prior to their allergy season. Allergy season varies based on the allergen and region of the country, so talk to your healthcare provider if you're unsure when to start taking your medications.

    If these medications don't work, then you might be a candidate for allergen immunotherapy, otherwise known as allergy shots. You'd receive a regimen of allergen injections, administered weekly, in escalating doses. These shots desensitize your allergy cells, meaning you may not have as strong of an allergic reaction.

    Whatever treatment plan you choose, getting an allergy test helps you understand whether to take medications and when.

    Tip 4: Discover how an allergy test could help

    Pinpointing your allergens helps you avoid them more effectively. For example, if you have a pollen allergy, you might avoid going out at dawn or dusk, when pollen in the air is most concentrated.

    On the other hand, a negative allergy test can also help your health. Patients often mistake colds, eczema, celiac disease, and other conditions for allergies. Getting tested could keep them from taking unnecessary allergy medications and help them identify the real cause of their difficulties.

    After getting an allergy diagnosis, it can be frustrating to realize that your allergies can't be cured per se. That said, it's still possible to limit your exposure and treat your symptoms-so you can go about your normal life, unbothered.

    [1] Ciprandi G, Alesina R, Ariano R, et al. Characteristics of patients with allergic polysensitization; the polismail study. Eur Ann Allergy Clin Immunol. 2008;40 (3);77-83.
    [2] Environmental management of pediatric asthma. Guidelines for health care providers. National Guideline Clearinghouse, 2006.

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