By the HELP Committee and Havre Public Schools
As April showers prepare to usher in May flowers, so too come the tree, grass and weed pollens that trigger allergies in up to a quarter of the population.
While seasonal allergies are on the rise, heading them off early by seeking treatment before the runny nose, congestion and watery eyes set in can help keep these uncomfortable symptoms at bay.
"It's a lot easier to treat the allergic reactions before they start happening than to wait until you've had symptoms," Andrew Singer, an allergist at the University of Michigan Health System, said in a press release. "Typically, this means starting a couple weeks before allergy season even begins to get your body ready for the onslaught of allergens. Once the allergic reaction happens, it takes more medication and it's much more difficult to calm things down and make you feel better."
The earliest allergens to pop up are tree pollens, followed by grass pollens and then different types of weed pollens. Ragweed, one of the most common allergens, usually kicks up around late August or early September.
More and more people are affected by seasonal allergies. Twenty years ago, about 10 percent of the population experienced seasonal allergies. Today that prevalence has more than doubled. Allergists notice this trend in perennial allergies and food allergies as well. Experts suspect the "hygiene hypothesis" is to blame for the upswing in allergies. As doctors have gotten better at treating infections with antibiotics and vaccines, children aren't exposed to as many infections as they were 20 to 30 years ago.
"The immune system literally gets bored," Singer said in the press release. "If one part of the immune system isn't challenged appropriately enough or with the right challenges at the right period of time, then it turns into more of an allergic immune system rather than an infection-fighting immune system."
Allergies are most likely to spring up around age 2 or 3. They'll get worse as children get older and collect more allergens, but by the 20s or 30s, symptoms will tend to improve. As people continue to age, their reactions to allergens tend to lessen.
Of course, that's little consolation to someone who spends the spring sniffling and sneezing.
Allergies can also be linked to asthma. Among children with allergies, 50 percent to 70 percent may have underlying asthma as well. For some people, allergens in the environment specifically trigger the asthma.
"Certainly when asthma's involved, allergies become a little bit more dangerous because the asthma can get to the point where a child or adult can have difficulty breathing, may need supplemental oxygen, or may need to be seen in the emergency room for further treatment," Singer said in the release.
One result of this is a loss of productivity at work for adults and missed school days for children. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, allergies account for 2 million missed school days each year, and on any given day more than 10,000 children are absent from school due to troublesome allergy symptoms.
Smoking in the home seems to increase the impact of allergies and asthma. Children with asthma who live with one smoker missed school twice as much as those from nonsmoking homes, while those who lived with two or more smokers missed school 10 times more.
While allergies can't be cured, there are things you can do to limit your exposure to allergens:
Avoid going outdoors during peak times of year for pollen exposure.
Use air conditioning in your house and car and keep the windows closed.
Wear a mask when doing lawn or garden work.
Shower or bathe at night to remove pollens and other allergens from your hair and skin.
Vacuum your carpets, curtains and soft furniture often.
Remove any mold you find in your home.
If you are a smoker, try to quit or, at the very least, never smoke indoors.
For more information on this or related topics, contact the HELP Committee and Boys & Girls Club of the Hi-Line at 265-6206.