I'm Not Crying—It's Allergies!

A man with the flu or a cold wipes his runny nose.

If you are someone who suffers from allergies, then you're already familiar with a variety of symptoms—skin rashes; watery, red, or puffy eyes; a stuffy or runny nose; sneezing; wheezing; and, sometimes, difficulty breathing. These symptoms can be difficult to manage, especially when it makes you feel so miserable.

Facts about asthma and allergies

Allergies are diseases of the immune system that cause an overreaction to substances called "allergens." Examples of allergens include pollens, dust mites, molds, animal proteins, foods, some medications, and fragrances.

Allergies are grouped by the kind of trigger, time of year, or where symptoms appear on the body. Typical types of allergies include indoor and outdoor allergies, food allergies, skin allergies, latex allergies, insect allergies, and eye allergies.

Did you know that:

  • An estimated 50 million Americans suffer from all types of allergies?
  • Allergy is the fifth leading chronic disease in the U.S. among all ages?
  • Each year, allergies account for more than 17 million outpatient office visits, primarily in the spring and fall?

Common sources of pollen

May 5 is World Asthma Day and May 10–16 is Food Allergy Awareness Week.

Pollen allergies can begin as soon as mid-January and can run through the end of fall, often due to trees, grasses, weeds and other allergens. This year in Seattle, allergy season started much earlier than usual, due to unusually warm weather during the month of February. The source? Oh, those budding trees and flowers!

Outdoor allergens are seasonal so it may not cause year-round symptoms. But, because of differing times of the year, different pollens "peak" or pollinate and—depending on the climate—they can cause problems for four to six months of the year for many people.

Common outdoor allergens in the Pacific Northwest include:

  • Maple (March to May)
  • Hazelnut (mid-January to mid-March)
  • Cedar/juniper (February to June)
  • Alder (late-February to mid-May)
  • Elm (mid-February to early May)
  • Birch (mid-March to mid-April)
  • Cottonwood/poplar (March to April)
  • Oak (late April to early June)
  • Ash (mid-April to May)
  • Grasses (mid-April to September, peak in June)
  • Weeds (mid-May to September)

Managing allergies successfully

If you suffer from asthma, Aging and Disability Service's Asthma Self-Management Plan may help. Please discuss it with your health care provider.

People who manage their allergies can live healthy and active lives. Here are a few recommendations:

  1. It's common to be allergic to multiple things, so know your allergies and do your best to remove and/or avoid and control allergens in the home—such as pollen, contaminants from dust mites, cockroaches, rodents, pets and mold.
  2. Getting rid of a pet may not be reasonable for pet lovers, but you can try to keep your pet out of the bedroom and remove carpeting in the bedroom.
  3. Select furniture that is vinyl or leather (versus fabric). This way, you can wipe down the furniture from any pet hair or dust that may be present.
  4. Wash your bedding weekly in hot water (130 degrees Fahrenheit or higher) and keep your home as dust free as possible.
  5. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) has certified a new product that could be a great addition to your plan of attack to create a healthier home. The Bona Free and Simple Hardwood Floor Cleaner® has earned AAFA asthma and allergy friendly certification. This product appears to be suitable for anyone with asthma and/or allergies.
  6. Avoid strong fragrances, perfumes, body lotions, etc. It's hard for people who are not sensitive or allergic to understand that fragrances can cause mild to severe health consequences for others.
  7. Talk with your health care provider. You may need to take an atihistamine, decongestant, or—in some cases—a prescription steroid medication or spray.
  8. Consider purchasing a certified air cleaning device. AAFA asthma and allergy friendly certification is awarded to air cleaning devices that have been scientifically demonstrated to reduce allergens. Check the AAFA website for the current list of air cleaning devices.
  9. Check the pollen forecast regularly to be prepared.

Asthma and allergy awareness

The AAFA also declares May as National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month, the peak season for asthma and allergy sufferers. During this month, we are all encouraged educate our family and friends about asthma and allergies. The AAFA website has many free resources available to help bring healthy messages to work, school and home, and help those living with asthma and allergies achieve a "life without limits."

Local support for people suffering from allergies is available through the Northwest Asthma & Allergy Center, or contact your regular health care provider.

Contributors Karen Winston and Mary Pat O'Leary, RN, BSN are planners at Aging and Disability Services—the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle-King County. Among many duties, Karen leads falls prevention efforts, while Mary Pat has been instrumental in developing patient and public education materials related to chronic conditions, including two dozen Self-Management Plans, available online.