EVE RUBENSTEIN: When did I first realize that I had allergies? I really can't remember because I've been an allergy sufferer all my life.
ANNOUNCER: Like millions of Americans who live with allergies, Eve Rubenstein spent much of her life trying everything she could to combat her symptoms.
EVE RUBENSTEIN: I took a lot of Sudafed. I took a lot of antihistamine. I was trying everything staying away from parks when it was hay fever season. Or making sure you didn't go to someone's home who had a cat. It was hard.
ANNOUNCER: Part of the difficulty is that Eve has both seasonal and chronic allergies. But just what is an allergy?
GILLIAN SHEPHERD, MD: What allergy is, is when your immune overreacts to normal, common substances. Normal people don't overreact to peanut, don't overreact to grass pollen. And that's the curse of the allergy person.
BETH CORN, MD: What happens is on first exposure, nothing happens to you. But then on a repeat exposure-whether it's the second exposure or the twelfth exposure-- that's when the body produces an antibody which starts a whole cascade of events
GILLAN SHEPHERD, MD: When grass pollen enters, it'll bind with this allergy protein, which releases a lot of chemicals and most people are familiar with the one, histamine. It also induces a lot of itching, eyes, nose, sneezing.
ANNOUNCER: A common misperception about allergies is that they only become active at certain times of the year.
GILLIAN SHEPHERD, MD: A lot of people think allergies only happen in the spring or fall, but actually there are two types of allergy problems. One is what we call seasonal, and certainly it happens typically in the spring. And that is due to tree pollen. Then in the summer it's due to grass pollen. And in the fall it's due to the pollens of weeds, notoriously ragweed .
However in addition to being seasonal a lot of allergies are what we call perennial. They're there throughout the entire year. And these are the people that are allergic, for example to dust mites in their home, to the pets in their home. In some areas of inner city, cockroach allergy is a major problem. And in a lot of parts of the country, mold allergy is a major problem.
ANNOUNCER: For many allergy sufferers, everyday life can be negatively affected by their symptoms. ELI MELTZER, MD: I have people who come to see me because they're socially impaired because they can't visit certain houses because there's an animal.
EVE RUBENSTEIN, MD: I can't go to people's houses who have cats because that's still a real problem for me.
ELI MELTZER, MD: Maybe certain chores are not as appropriate. Mowing the lawn may not be a great task for somebody who's grass allergic. And it's been shown in people who have allergic disease that's really quite consequential, they're more irritable, more angry, more frustrated. When you're feeling run-down, tired and itchy just generally yuck from your allergies, and people bother you, you have a short temper. At least I do.
ANNOUNCER: The good news for those with allergies is there are a variety of medical treatments and ways to modify their environment that can control their symptoms.
MARJORIE SLANKARD, MD: There are over the counter nasal sprays such as Nasalcrom, and then there are the prescription nose sprays which are most effectively prescribed as the topical steroid sprays.
ANNOUNCER: Other medications include the antihistamines. Many sold over the counter, like Benadryl, Chlor-Trimeton, and Dimetapp are sedating-they can cause sleepiness. Those prescribed by doctors are usually non-sedating. These medications can help improve an allergy sufferer's quality of life.
ELI MELTZER, MD: Quality of life is not just a general three-word sentence. There's actually ways you can measure people's health quality of life, if you give them an effective medication, you can show improvement in physical ability, ability to sleep, ability to have less emotional upset, ability to carry on their activities.
ANNOUNCER: Right now a non-sedating medication, Claritin, is available over the counter, which allows allergy sufferers to buy it without a prescription. But medications alone are often not enough. Many allergy sufferers have to learn to modify their environment-that is, avoid the things that trigger their symptoms.
EVE RUBENSTEIN, MD: My husband and I always wanted to have plants in the house, but there are certain kinds of plants that I just can't have. And so the other day I walked in and he had bought this wonderful leafy plant. And he was very proud of himself that he had managed to do something that was within my allergy-free zone.
ANNOUNCER: One of the biggest challenges for many physicians is treating those who are allergic to their pets.
GILLIAN SHEPHERD, MD: Patients with cats are the curse and bane of an allergy physician's existence. They probably also sustain an awful lot of allergy practices. Somebody who is genetically prone to allergies gets a cat. And it's only a matter of time and usually by six months that's person's allergy system has seen the cat and said 'Programmed to react to this' turned on and made allergy. But after this period of time the owner of the cat and the cat have completely bonded and we're stuck. We say 'Well at least try to keep the cat out of the bedroom. The majority of cat owners sleep with the cat here. And if they have two cats, it's here and here. So it does help if the cats are at least out of the bedroom.
ANNOUNCER: The combination of managing their environment, knowing their allergy triggers, and using their medicine when necessary, can significantly improve the quality of life of many people with allergies.