Ah yes, another beautiful spring day has begun.
An estimated 35 million Americans sniffle, itch and sneeze through springtime each year, including some 6 million youngsters who get hay fever. When you consider all allergy-producing sources, one in five Americans suffers
from allergies, according to government estimates.
WHO'S TO BLAME?
It's easy to finger who's to blame. It's heredity. Blame your parents. If one parent has allergies, there's a 40 percent chance of the child's getting them. If both parents have allergies, the risk rises to 60 percent to 80 percent.
How can parents tell if their child has an allergy, rather than a cold that's causing a runny nose? "Usually a cold is over in 7 to 10 days, and the eyes don't itch," said Dr. Edward Hein, director of allergy services at St. Christopher's Hosital for Children.
"In allergic children, they're trying to scratch or itch their nasal passages or throats. They put their fingers or thumbs in their mouth."
Some researchers believe that the human race is becoming more allergy- prone, citing a recent Mayo Clinic study that found the incidence of asthma, which can be allergy-related, increased XXX from 1964 to 1988.
WHAT'S TO BLAME?
Well, of course, we can blame the weather. The pollen season last spring was an allergy sufferer's nightmare. Because of cooler weather and heavy rains last May, trees and grasses - that normally would have bloomed gradually - pollinated all at once. The verdict's still out on this spring.
The most common irritants in the spring are the pollens discharged by blossoming trees, grasses and weeds. Hot and dry July provides a respite. Then, ragweed comes out in mid-August and lasts until September.
As winter approaches, turning on the furnace can spew mold and dust throughout the house.
THE PHARMACEUTICAL SOLUTION
There's not much new in the allergy arsenal, but existing therapies are improving.
Allergy shots, for example, are becoming more potent with fewer side effects.
But these shots are the last resort in the war to eradicate allergy symptoms. The first step is to start with over-the-counter medications.
Antihistamines have been around since the 1940s. The most well-known is Chlor-Trimeton, a drug now available over-the-counter. The main disadvantage is these antihistamines is they cross into the brain and may produce drowsiness.
A new generation of antihistamine drugs block the allergic response but don't cause drowsiness. The most familiar prescription antihistamines are Seldane, which has been available for about three years, and Hismanal, introduced within the past year. Both drugs work by blocking the release of histamine, a potent chemical released from certain white blood cells that causes the body to overreact against allergens.
These products are not available for those younger than 12 because the drugs only come in one dosage, which is too strong for a child, said Hein.
The next line of defense against allergies involves nasal steroid sprays, which were developed two decades ago. The benefit of using them in children is that the steroids only work in the nose and don't get into the circulation of the body.
Another type of drug actually prevents an allergic reaction before it start. Called Nasalcrom - or cromolyn sodium - the drug acts by preventing white blood cells from releasing chemicals such as histamine. However, this must be sprayed in the nose four to six times a day to be effective.
For those who aren't helped by medications, the answer may be immunotherapy, which is receiving allergy shots that alter the body's immune response to certain allergens.
Weekly injections for about two years help about two-thirds of acute
allergy sufferers who take this treatment. These can cost $500 to $2,000 a year.
"After two or three years, a person goes on a shot holiday to see if the symptoms return," said Hein. "Some people may lose the allergy, or we see that the symptoms come back."
WHAT'S ON THE HORIZON
Dr. Stephen McGeady, director of allergy and clinical immunology at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, envisions a day when people will still have allergies - but no longer suffer from them. Researchers, investigating the immune system's reaction to the AIDS virus, may come across a way to block or turn off the body's immunological response to ragweed, pollen and other irritants.
"No one would know they had an allergy after the first allergic reaction," said McGeady. "They'd be treated, probably with an immune- modulation shot."
NOTHING LASTS FOREVER - EVEN AN ALLERGY
At any age, people can develop or outgrow an allergy because the immune system is constantly changing.
Thirty to 40 percent of children outgrow allergies either at age 5 or at puberty. However, people in their late teens or early 20s are ripe for developing new allergies.
"You tend to be less allergic as you get older," said McGeady. "If you have hay fever in your 20s, by the time you're in your 60s or 70s, it will be less severe."
IT COULD BE WORSE
"You know, I can remember the polio epidemics. It's not too many years ago that people were preoccupied with these diseases. If someone complained of an
allergy, they were told, 'Here's the Kleenex,' " said McGeady.
"Now we have the resources to focus on things like allergies that people just tolerated years ago."
1. Pollen levels are highest from about 5 a.m. to 10 a.m., so stay indoors then. Pollen counts are worst on warm, sunny days, better on cool, cloudy days and after rain.
2. Keep windows in cars and houses shut. Keep cool, but not cold - 10 degrees cooler than the outdoors is best for the indoors. Clean filters for air conditioners and humidifiers.
3. Protect eyes from pollen outdoors with glasses or sunglasses.
4. Mow the lawn short and often to keep grass (and weeds) from blooming - and releasing pollen.
5. Wash your hands and rinse your eyes thoroughly when coming indoors. Shower, shampoo and change clothes if you think you've been heavily exposed to pollen.
6. Use allergen-proof, zippered casings for pillows and mattresses.
7. Exercise in the afternoon when pollen levels taper off. Warm up and stretch indoors. Swimming is an excellent exercise that reduces contact with airborne allergens.
8. Move - to the shore or the Poconos. Sea breezes have less pollen, and mountain air less mold. Worst place to live: river valleys, like the Delaware valley.
9. Remove the culprit. One allergist recalled a child who was allergic to molds. The child's home had a basement that flooded each time it rained, producing the perfect medium for molds to grow. "They didn't need an allergist, they needed a contractor to put in a sump pump," the allergist said.