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Under Attack

Posted Mar 01 2008 12:00am

Students suffering from seasonal allergies seek solutions for recurring symptoms

Story by Mallory Creveling // Photography by Samantha Colt & Heidi Bungart

Tanya Elm was out of options. Nothing — not Tylenol, Mucinex, or any other allergy-relieving medications helped. Though she had experienced allergy symptoms for months, the Syracuse University junior decided to get a blood test this past summer to find out why her coughing and congestion could not be cured. “It’s so frustrating when I’m coughing at night, because I’m so tired and I just want to sleep, and I can’t,” Elm says. “I don’t mind having the sniffles every once in a while. It’s just when it affects my sleeping that it becomes annoying.”

After the blood test, Elm found her allergens included two popular varieties: pollen and mold. At times of the year when trees and flowers are in full bloom and Syracuse weather finally turns sunny and warm, allergens like these begin to ruin gorgeous days that should be spent outside. Sneezing, coughing, itchy throat, runny nose, and watering, red, swollen eyes describe not only a NyQuil commercial, but also people who suffer through the changing seasons. These allergies affect as many as 40 to 50 million Americans, or about 13 to 17 percent of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

When the body suffers an allergic reaction, the immune system reacts to a false alarm caused by an allergen, according to HHS. The immune system defends itself by treating the allergen as an intruder. To prepare for an attack, the immune system produces the antibody immunoglobulin. Each antibody is made to defeat a particular substance. When an allergen comes in contact with its specified antibody, the antibody attaches to it. This causes the antibody to produce chemicals that act on tissues throughout the body and cause allergy symptoms.

Fall, spring, and summer are the most common times for trees, weeds, and grasses to release pollen particles and bring miserable days for Jill McCoy, who suffers from seasonal allergies. She always carries tissues, eye drops, and an inhaler. “One symptom leads to the next one,” she says. “I’m sneezing a lot, and then I can’t breathe, and then my asthma kicks in.”

Though McCoy’s asthma is mainly exercise induced, days when pollen is heavy in the air make it difficult for her to breathe. Pollen can enter human noses and throats after traveling through the air for miles, HHS says. Though colorful lilies, roses, and other flowers don’t usually cause pollen allergies, plants that produce the pollen, such as ragweed, make it in large quantities, forcing people to reach for that extra box of tissues.

Another common form of allergies develops in places around the home. From mattresses and air conditioners to grass and wheat, mold and fungi can grow in nearly any damp, cool area year-round. Victims of these allergies inhale the seeds, or spores, of fungi that cause allergy symptoms and may eventually reach the lungs. Some foods may also bring on this allergy, including cheese, mushrooms, and foods with soy sauce, yeast, or vinegar, according to the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases’ Web site. In a college dorm setting, the stakes may be even higher, given the close quarters of rooms and the lack of precise knowledge as to what goes into dining hall food. Besides molds filling household corners, dust mites also invade furniture and carpets. Mites thrive in summer, finding comfortable homes for when the weather gets colder. Their waste products are what cause allergic reactions.

NIAID advises staying indoors in the morning and on sunny, windy days when pollen levels skyrocket. The toss-up between the bliss of a clear nasal passage and a day outside may be a tough decision. One way to combine both of these fantasies is vacationing in a spot with limited pollen, such as the beach or on a cruise ship. To keep dust mites from causing sneezing and coughing, avoid shag carpets, along with feather pillows, blinds, and down-filled blankets, though some stores do sell hypoallergenic down. Hardwood floors are a better choice for those affected by these allergens, NIAID says. This may pose a problem for many living in carpeted dorms.

Suggested home remedies may reduce symptoms, but when noses won’t stop dripping during a math exam, over-the-counter medicines can help, too. Antihistamines relieve itching, sneezing, and reduce nasal swelling and drainage; however, these medicines may involve sacrificing your energy, since most cause drowsiness. Claritin, an allergy drug that a few years ago was approved for over-the-counter use, does not cause drowsiness, as well as many prescription drugs like Zyrtec and Allegra. Nasal steroids are another option, not to be confused with anabolic steroids used by some athletes. These steroids will not assist in muscle growth, but rather reduce mucus secretion and nasal swelling. Afrin is available over-the-counter, while brands such as Astelin and Flonase require a prescription. But beware: Use of over-the-counter nasal sprays for more than three days may lead to physical dependence and addiction, which makes symptoms even worse, HHS says. In that case, saline sprays like Ocean Premium can stop the release of chemicals that cause allergic reactions, along with decongestants that are helpful in draining mucus and keeping sinus areas comfortable.

Allergy shots work well to reduce allergy symptoms over a long period of time. Immunotherapy, or a series of allergy shots, provides under-the-skin injections of allergens that cause the health problems. These injections reduce the antibodies that attack allergens and create protective antibodies instead. Shots are given every week over a three- to five-week period and cost roughly $800 for the first year, and $170 to $290 for each following, according to the Respiratory Reviews news magazine. The shots are covered by most insurance companies.

McCoy tried to take shots to help her allergies, but the burden of going to the doctor every week was heavier to bear than the symptoms. She usually takes over-the-counter medicine to relieve allergy signs. “It’s only when you’re uncomfortable that you realize you have to get something to take care of it,” she says.

For Elm, the shots’ frequent dosage didn’t seem too appealing, either. Though both women are enjoying little congestion and itch-free eyes for now, they anticipate running to CVS for their next allergy-fighting kit when the weather warms up and school comes to a close.

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